If you see one documentary about Russian hockey and the NHL’s historical connection to it — and there have been a few — make it “Red Penguins.” Director Gabe Polsky’s second crack at this subject (2014’s “Red Army” was good, too.) is a parable woven into a history lesson — how American capitalism met the “Leviathan” of Russian corruption, paranoia and thuggery, and had to flee.
And the timing of the film’s release — Aug. 4 — cannot help but make this whimsical tale’s dark undercurrents prophetic. It plays like a warning for the America Vladimir Putin and his biggest fan seem to want to make over in Russia’s image — corrupt, authoritarian, with an “elite” outside the rule of law.
The film is a brisk and often amusing history of how the Pittsburgh Penguins National Hockey League team bought a half-interest in the Red Army hockey squad, the powerhouse Soviet national team that found itself no longer viable with the collapse of the Soviet empire.
The story begins with a gonzo giddiness as film producer and Penguins co-owner Howard Baldwin (“Ray,” and the hockey films “Sudden Death” and “Mystery Alaska”) decides to gamble on buying into the team (Michael J. Fox was also an investor), and sends hustler/promoter/marketer Steve Warshaw to Moscow to see what can be done to make it work.
Warshaw became the “crazy American freak,” he says, and the Russian partners interviewed here agree. He figured out how to rebrand the squad as “Red Penguins,” how to spruce up their decrepit “Ice Palace” for the games, and how to get fans to come back now that the CCCP was gone from their jerseys.
“Clean bathrooms and free toilet paper” were a plus. There’s a strip club tucked into the building where the arena is? “Stripper cheerleaders on skates,” sliding behind the Zamobini between periods, peeling off their clothes as they do.
They’d sell sponsorships for the first time, billboards in the arena, patches on the jerseys. Free Gillette razors night! Pittsburgh’s Iron City Beer is a sponsor? Free BEER night!
“We’d have drunk 14, 15 year-olds in the stands,” Warshaw laughs.
But the culture clash was there from the get-go. The Russians were prone to late nights and tardy, tipsy arrivals at work. And they were paranoid. A team that couldn’t fill its arena “if Jesus Christ resurrected” was part of the show was suddenly the hottest ticket in town again, internationally marketed, with Disney nipping at its heels for a piece. And surly Russian partners like the always-laughing/always-menacing Valery Gushen (interviewed extensively here) were SURE “they’re STEALING from us.”
It’s called “projecting,” a word that’s come into common currency the last four years. They were sure the Penguins were stealing from them because stealing is what they know and do.
But this early ’90s window, this “crazy world” that “we took advantage of” as Warshaw puts it, was to be brief. The shakedowns and extortion started early. The Russian mob (infamous “businessman” Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov appears on camera) muscled in.
And then the government collapsed into civil turmoil — riots, tanks on the streets, and this viperous runt named Putin was angling higher authority.
Polsky takes us on quite the sleigh ride, from the sunny silliness of gambling on Russian hockey, and then marketing it, to the grim reality that sets in — threats, intimidation and even murders.
Warshaw laughs about the stunts and gimmicks he unleashed to get butts in the seats of their arena and chuckles over a disastrous US tour, sending notes to the Disney chairman opening with “Dear Comrade Eisner.” Gushev laughs and laughs at the idea that a mob-connected “firm” put a spy/minder in Warshaw’s office with him in the later period of the partnership.
Polsky can be heard off-camera, offering sometimes incredulous, sometimes persistent questions in English and in Russian. An ex-KGB official is interrupted by Russian police in the middle of a Red Square interview. Outtakes are left in as Warshaw tries to keep his spin on this all glib and knowing. Baldwin is taken aback at Michael Eisner (not interviewed here) denying any Disney overtures on buying in or buying out the former Red Army team. Uh, it’s here, in WRITING, Comrade Eisner.
Every Russian, from team officials to media personalities, turns grimfaced as the “Constitutional Crisis” between Boris Yeltsin and hardliners in the parliament is revisited. It’s easy to see now as the beginning of the end of Russia’s dalliance with democracy.
But the real sage here is the mustache-waxed former team “mascot,” who’d yank off his penguin head so show the crowd his face — simply not done in North America. He is the one who philosophizes about American democratic capitalism facing “the Leviathan” of the Russian way, where “the mafia IS the system.”
With kidnappings and on-the-street shakedowns rampant, and an authoritarian kleptocracy of a “government” run by the biggest looters of all, Disney had the sense to back away from involvement. The Pittsburgh Penguins organization, and Warshaw, did too.
The sports to real life analogy in “Red Penguins” is hanging there, like a banner in the rafters of the arena of “The Greatest Hockey Team Ever.” Twenty years later, the rest of America decided to try its own Russian experiment in reverse. Will we wake up in time?
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence/bloody images, sexual material/nudity, some strong language and a drug reference
Cast: Steve Warshaw, Howard Baldwin, Valery Gushen, Victor Gusev, Alimzha Tokhlaknunov
Credits: Written and directed by Gabe Polsky. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:2;