"Red Army" is a deceptive name for a charming documentary. Even if you know it's the story of a legendary hockey team and not the fierce Soviet-era military machine, you will be surprised by its sociopolitical and personal content and the engaging way it tells its story.
As directed by Gabe Polsky, "Red Army" focuses on the storied success and controversial practices of that team, one of the great dynasties in all of sports, but it does so through the life and career of team captain and legendary defenseman Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov.
Telling Fetisov's story allows "Red Army" to chronicle the changes in individual lives as the Soviet Union transformed into the Russia that exists today, and it does so with energy and style. Any film involving ice hockey that features footage of trained circus bears playing the game cannot be accused of not having a sense of humor.
"Red Army" begins with Fetisov definitely not taking this film too seriously. As a printed list of his extensive honors (seven world championships, two Olympic gold medals, two Stanley Cups, etc.) fills up the screen, he devotes himself to phone calls while studiously ignoring filmmaker Polsky's plaintive off-screen questions. Finally, he calmly gives his interrogator the finger. Mission accomplished.
Born into poverty (his parents had to save for years to buy his first equipment on the black market), Fetisov was 10 when he began his association with a training program that funneled the best of the best into the Red Army program.
Underlining the intimate intertwining of sports and politics, the U.S.S.R. funneled considerable funds into the hockey program because it was felt that the success of the team would prove to the world the superiority of the Soviet system.
One reason Red Army was such a powerhouse was the gifts of its coach and hockey visionary Anatoly Tarasov, an innovative father figure who studied chess and ballet for concepts to pass onto his team.
It was Tarasov who envisioned hockey as the intricate passing game it became under his tutelage. He viewed his sport as an art form in which on-ice creativity was essential for success. His teams dazzled the world, even humiliating the Canadians, but then he was replaced by Viktor Tikhonov, who owed his ascension to his KGB connections, and everything changed.
Tikhonov was a demanding martinet who summarily dismissed most of the team that lost the 1980 Olympic gold medal to the U.S., and his draconian measures (for instance, he restricted team members to 36 nights a year at home) alienated almost everyone. The players used to joke that if they ever needed a heart transplant, they'd hope for Tikhonov's because he'd never used it.
The situation started to change with glasnost and perestroika, and the gradual end of the Soviet era. But the old system died hard, and even after the National Hockey League expressed interest in signing Russian players, the cash-starved government made these men kick back most of their salaries, a situation Fetisov refused to be a part of.
The story of how this strong-willed player finally got out of Russia is a complex and fascinating one, including a sizzling confrontation with the feared minister of Defense. But once Fetisov got to the NHL, things grew complicated in a completely different way, albeit with an end result that, once again, no one could have predicted.
Polsky's treatment of this material is nothing if not entertaining, including lively visuals like placing a tiny bouncing hammer and sickle over song lyrics, and his ability to apply a lively style to serious subject matter is key to "Red Army's" success. The Soviet players may have been miserable, but this film's narrative could charm even a grumpy ice-skating bear.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes