Until now, the confluence of sport and politics during the Cold War has been portrayed in more simplistic and unambiguous terms in narrative features like Rocky IV (1985) and Miracle (2004). Premiering at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Gabe Polsky’s immensely enjoyable documentary Red Army (2014) zeroes in on that same period of history in an altogether more engrossing and studied fashion. Polsky here brings that same restrained, unfussy style of filmmaking evident in his underrated The Motel Life (2013).
This tale of the titular, military-sanctioned Russian hockey team, once used as a potent propaganda tool (unsurprisingly, the club was founded by one Joseph Stalin) is fascinating in its own right, and Polsky is canny enough to let the story speak for itself and not cram his film with extraneous visuals and graphics. With a wealth of archival footage at his disposal (both training sessions and actual games), Polsky concentrates primarily on star player and team captain during the 1970s and 80s, Slava Fetisov.
Polsky is able to juggle a number of story strands within the framework of the tale, namely the turmoil which sprung from Soviet players defecting (with caveats) to North America for the Canadian National Hockey League, and the dissolution of long-term friendships between players because of this. Fetisov runs to gamut of emotions here. A highly-decorated sportsman and now prominent in politics back in the homeland, his arrogant and occasionally aloof demeanour represents a challenge for the director, whose own calm perseverance eventually causes his subject matter to open up, sometimes in unexpected ways. The contradictory nature of Fetisov shines through: a deeply patriotic person, he still managed to escape the Iron Curtain in pursuit of the kind of fame and riches a life in the west promoted.
It’s a richly-told story (Werner Herzog, no stranger to celebrated works in this medium, is on board here as one of the executive producers) and Red Army’s overarching themes patriotism and friendship are ultimately bigger than the games being played out by those colourful characters on the ice. Speaking of which, villain of the piece is undoubtedly Viktor Tikhonov, the team’s sadistic coach. Separated from their families for many months during training, the players were required to comply with Tikhonov’s draconian rules. This approach actually paid off for the team, whose gracefulness and skills on the ice far outmatched that of the more thuggish nature of their North American competitors. This is one of many illuminating reveals in a film brimming with character and detail.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76