In Terrific “Red Army,” Hockey as Metaphor for Empire’s Rise and Fall (and Rise Again?)

[NOTE: I reviewed this film on air, and you can listen to that review on the show’s podcast, starting at 42:50.]

Red Army

Red Army (Gabe Polsky, 2014)

The 1990s were not kind to Russia, at least not to its idea of itself as a global superpower. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, in December, 1991, the new Russian Federation that emerged from the legacy of 74 years of so-called communism entered a period of great economic uncertainty, ideological upheaval and almost constant political crisis. As a graduate student in Russian and East European Studies, and then a teacher of Russian, I traveled fairly regularly to the region throughout this period, witnessing firsthand* some of the major events (including the 1993 siege of the Russian Parliament building) of the cataclysmic transformation underway. It was exciting to observe, but not that fun to live through. Small wonder, then, that ordinary Russians have today embraced Vladimir Putin as a man who can restore Russia to the glories of old, even tolerating an aggression towards Ukraine that threatens to destabilize the Russian economy anew.

Back when Russia was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or USSR), it was a superpower in more than just military might. It also dominated in other areas, including sports, winning many Olympic medals. One of the jewels in its athletic crown was the national hockey team, run by the Soviet (or “Red“) Army, which first won the Olympic gold medal in 1956, then won every gold from 1960-1976, and then again in 1984 and 1988. The team and its victories were one of the many symbols that the USSR could hold up to the world as an example of its superiority over the “West” (meaning, us). When the team lost in 1980 to the United States (our “miracle on ice“), it was a devastating blow (though one from which, clearly, they could quickly recover), since the national psyche of supremacy was so heavily wrapped up in its hockey triumphs.

Now, from director Gabe Polsky (The Motel Life), comes a new documentary – opening today at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre – that chronicles the history of the Soviet hockey team and the men who worked hard to ensure its victories. The movie is more than just a profile of the team, however, as it also tells the tale of the rise and fall and rise again of Russia, itself. Out of great specificity come universal truths, and the details and politics of Soviet hockey reveal much about what worked – and what didn’t – in the former empire. This is only Polsky’s second movie as a director, though he has been producing (including for Werner Herzog, who returns the favor here) for a little longer, and approaches his topic with great skill and panache.

What is truly amazing about Polsky’s film is that he secured the participation of most of the surviving actors in the drama, first and foremost among them Vyacheslav (“Slava”) Fetisov, considered one of the best defenseman in the history of the game. Polsky and Fetisov share some aspects of their biographies, since the director was born in the Soviet Union (in Ukraine), immigrated to the United States, and later played hockey for Yale. This background allows Polsky to ask the right questions, probe deeply into the harsh realities of life behind the “Iron Curtain,” and shed light on the beauties and intricacies of the game.

Gaining access to Fetisov was a major coup, as the man makes an extremely charismatic main character. That, and his journey from Soviet superstar to pariah (when he tried to emigrate) to American hockey star (for the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings) and back to Russia – as Putin’s Minister of Sport! – mirrors the up-and-down fortunes and shifting allegiances of Russians over the past 30 years. Combining archival footage and contemporary interviews, Red Army is a brilliant historical document of sports, politics and human history. If the film has one weakness, it’s that – at only 76 minutes – it is too short (as a man who believes that most films should have a damn good reason to be much longer than 90 minutes, I can’t believe I just wrote that). As Polsky moves the story briskly along, we do not get to spend quite as much time on certain topics as I would have liked, such as: how did the hockey players feel after losing to the Americans in 1980; after his negative experience with the authoritarian Soviet government in the late 1980s/early 1990s, why did Fetisov agree to work for Putin? Still, that aside, the movie is a marvel, and I highly recommend.

*Below are some photos from my two-month stay in Moscow, in 1993:

Watching government tanks just before they stormed the "White House' (Parliament building)
Watching government tanks just before they stormed the “White House’ (Parliament building)
The "White House" in the weeks after its storming, before they cleaned it up.
The “White House” in the weeks after its storming, before they cleaned it up.
Yours truly, relaxing after all of the madness
Yours truly, relaxing after all of the madness.

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