The Cold War Played Out On An Ice Rink In ‘Red Army’
Smartly Crafted Documentary Looks To Soviet Hockey
Friday, February 27, 2015
Credit: Courtesy of Slava Fetisov/Sony Pictures Classics
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the documentary, "Red Army."
"The Deadliest Season" (1977)
"Miracle on Ice" (1981)
Director's statement from Gabe Polsky about why he made the documentary "Red Army."
The documentary "Red Army" — about Soviet era hockey — arrives in San Diego (opening Feb. 27 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) just as the sport skates back into town. It's a documentary that even non-hockey fans will find riveting.
"Red Army" is that rare thing, a documentary that not only serves up a fascinating story but also knows how to tell that story with style and innovation.
Filmmaker Gabe Polsky opens his interview with Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov by showing the legendary Russian defenseman blowing off his questions in order to deal with cell phone messages. Polsky smartly uses footage that most documentaries would leave on the cutting room floor because it’s footage that helps to define the people he’s interviewing and engages the viewer on new levels.
We hear Polsky earnestly asking questions about what Soviet life was like back in the 1970s and what misconceptions Americans might hold about Russia then and now. But Fetisov, currently a member of the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, has more important things to deal with.
Polsky's choice to open the interview like this jolts the audience into realizing that this is not going to be your standard talking heads documentary nor is it going to be a run of the mill sports film.
Polsky's choices throughout are brilliant yet simple. He interviews a former KGB officer with his granddaughter, and the old man asks the little girl if she even knows what the KGB is. She doesn't and he shrugs it off. That exchange conveys so much information about how times have changed and how generations see the world differently.
There are other times when Polsky intercuts archive footage of pivotal hockey games — such as the 1980 Olympic game between the USA and the Soviet team that became known as the "Miracle on Ice" — with players' reactions today. I don't know if he actually played the footage for his interviewees and then filmed their reactions, but the approach works well in conveying how key players felt about historic moments in hockey.
Polsky also knows when to just let a shot sit for a few moments longer than expected to catch a change of expression or final, silent emotional response to a question.
The film also benefits from amazing archive footage. There is coach Anatoly Tarasov employing everything from chess strategy to Bolshoi Ballet techniques to hockey; breathtaking footage of the Soviet team in action; and news reports revealing how strongly the Cold War impacted sports. His film is as much about the sport of hockey in Russia as it is about the individual story of Fetisov, who helped break down the barriers that prevented Soviet players from leaving the Soviet Union to join the NHL.
Much of the story is amazing, from Fetisov living and breathing hockey as a child to being handcuffed and beaten (according to his wife's account) by Soviet officials to prevent him from leaving the country to facing the anti-communist mentality of Americans when he finally began to play in the U.S. for the NHL.
In his director’s statement, Polsky explained: “Making ‘Red Army’ provided an opportunity both to explore my heritage and to examine the impact hockey had on the culture, politics and legacy of the Soviet Union.”
Polsky played hockey and it wasn’t until he had a coach from the Soviet Union that he saw hockey in a whole new light.
“The coach’s philosophy and training methods were rigorous and unusual: we were forced to walk on our hands and do somersaults on the ice; we carried tires and skated with teammates on our backs. Perhaps the biggest difference was that he encouraged creativity and taught us to think as a unit,” Polsy went on to explain in the press materials. “I tracked down old Soviet hockey footage and what I saw was eye-opening. Soviet hockey was amazingly creative and improvisational. The Soviets moved fluidly, like one body, and it looked more like an art form than a game. That’s how I wanted to play.”
Polsky’s love for the game, and his admiration for the innovation of the Russian coaches and players clearly comes through in this fabulous film. Seeing the Russian players at the height of their game is mesmerizing, and reminds you of how beautiful the game of hockey can be when played at the top level. Not sure that's what we'll be seeing in San Diego when the Gulls return to town, but we can hope.
In "Red Army" (rated PG for thematic material and language, and in English and Russian with English subtitles), Polsky weaves a thrilling, tense, tragic, and triumphant tale of Russian hockey from the 1970s on. Whether you enjoy sports or not you’ll be entertained and enlightened by Polsky’s tale of the cold war played out on the ice rink.
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