Movie Review: Soviets sharpen their skates in “Red Army”

redarmy

For a few moments, it feels like a mistake, a director’s miscalculation.
Documentary filmmaker Gabe Polsky lets us hear his awkward, groping questions to an imperious, dismissive 50something Russian hockey legend.
Like many of the ex-Soviet interview subjects of Polsky’s Soviet national hockey team film, “Red Army,” Slava Fetisov doesn’t bother to turn off his phone. He keeps it in his hand, and dismisses the silly filmmaker’s clumsy efforts to draw him out — holding up his hand, smiling rudely as he takes a text and a call.
But Polsky is clumsy like a fox. With that simple introduction, he shows us what tough cookies these guys were to interview — “To be continued,” one tells him. “Next question,” in Russian.
And that takes us right back there, to the arrogant glory days of Red Army hockey, when this unemotional “Big Red Machine” destroyed the world’s best with their finesse, teamwork and nerves of ice.
“Red Army” is a delightful eye-opener, an entertaining history lesson that allows Cold Warriors, given the gift of time, to appreciate just how magical those dominant Red Army Club teams were in the ’70s and ’80s. They skated over, first to Canada and then the U.S., and utterly dismantled the best the Free World had to offer, weaving and passing and slapping the puck home in a series of humiliating defeats in exhibition matches, World Championships and Olympic games that played out like skirmishes in the Cold War.
Polsky tracked down “The Soviet Five,” the legendary line of that team through much of the ’80s, and tells us the inside story — the Politburo intrigues, the patriotic pride, the hateful coach who took credit for their glory and later, the lure of the N.H.L. and its big contracts as the Soviet Empire finally collapsed.
Polsky shows us old footage of the father of Soviet hockey, Anatoli Tarasov, a cliched portrait of a big, bearish, huggable Russian — teaching kids, encouraging them, building the team that became the world’s best by having them learn chess and ballet, only to run afoul of Brezhnev regime and be shunted aside.
Polsky wisely builds the film around Fetisov interviews, and the gifted defenseman’s biography mirrors the rise and fall of Red Army hockey and the country and system that produced it. If you don’t know his story, you will be drawn in to his battles with authorities, his betrayal by teammates, his pride and his difficult adjustment to the North American version of the game he has loved since birth.
We see America’s “Miracle on Ice” from a Russian point of view, watch as Fetisov tears up and cannot bring himself to watch that infamous 1980 Olympics defeat on videotape. “Red Army” recaptures the context — a fresh Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, worldwide rebukes, America celebrating the victory of “our system” over theirs. Since, as Soviet-era spokesman/journalist Vladimir Posner reminds us, “sport was a form of warfare,” that blow kicked the Bear where it hurt.
Polsky interviews a bemused ex-KGB agent (Felix Nechepore) in a park in front of a statue of Lenin. In between interruptions by his irrepressible granddaughter, Nechepore details the level of state control, the ways the KGB watched and “guarded” the star athletes, whom the state feared would defect decades before the defections began.
“Red Army” has chilling moments in common with “Blood in the Water,” the Cold War water polo grudge match documentary, and the lighter and more triumphant chess match film “Bobby Fischer Goes to War.” But here the triumph is more personal, an essay on Russia’s idea of patriotism that goes a long way to explaining the success of Vladimir Putin’s rule in spite of everything he does that threatens to throw the country and the world into reverse, into another dictatorship firing up another Cold War.
“Red Army” reminds us that the system that produced once invincible hockey could not survive exposure to the consumer economy and the lure of capitalist athletics then. And it probably won’t again, no matter how much they, as Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman enthuses, elevate “hockey to an art form.”
3half-star
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material and language
Cast: Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, Scott Bowman, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladisllav Tretiak, Vladimir Posner,Lada Fetisov
Credits: Written and directed by Gabe Polsky. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:16

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