DIR: Gabe Polsky • WRI: Gabe Polsky• PRO: Werner Herzog, Sean Carey, Gabe Polsky, Dmitry Saltykovsky, Liam Satre-Meloy, Jerry Weintraub, Andy Zare • DOP: Peter Zeitlinger, Svetlana Cvetko • ED: Eli B. Despres, Kurt Engfehr • MUS: Malcolm Fife • CAST: Viacheslav Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Anatoli Karpov, Alexei Kasatonov, Ken Kurtis, Felix Nechepore, Vladimir Pozner
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s national ice hockey team ruled the world. Gabe Polsky’s new film Red Army tells their story through their rise in the 1970s, great success in the 1980s and continued victories as professionals in the 1990s.
There is a lot of politics in the film but this is a sports documentary in the classic vein of we came from nothing, we worked hard and we conquered the world. In that respect this is nothing you haven’t seen before.
Ice hockey is not a sport many Irish people will know about but you don’t need an interest in it to enjoy this film. However, if you have no interest in sport of any kind then large parts of Red Army won’t appeal to you.
It shows how the Soviet system affected the team, especially in the form of reviled team coach and KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov, who kept an iron grip on the team and dictated every move the players made. He refused leave to one player whose father was dying. He never saw his father again.
History buffs may find this an interesting new angle on state control of every aspect of the country and how they used sport as propaganda.
The film focuses mainly on one of the greats of the team, Viacheslav ‘Slava’ Fetisov, and if the director had chosen to make the film just about his story it may have been no worse. He is the most interesting person in the documentary (with possibly the exception of an ex-KGB agent’s granddaughter who keeps hilariously interrupting her grandfather’s interview).
Fetisov was the leader of the so-called ‘Russian 5’, the core group of the Soviet team who played as if the shared a brain, knowing without looking where the others were and destroying the best opposition the world could put against them. In one game they beat another ice hockey giant and much fancied Canada 8 – 1.
Fetisov, now a Russian senator and former minster of sport from 2002-08, was the player who suffered most under the state’s control of the hockey team. He fought like a Russian soldier in Stalingrad to be allowed play in the US and Canada’s National Hockey League. The film details his struggles after he quit the national team in protest at not being allowed to move. Ironically, he earlier this year called for a law preventing Russian players from playing in the NHL until they reach 28.
The main problem with the film is that it lacks detail. Polsky, who, despite his last name, is an American and must interview most of his Russian subjects through a translator. He interviews former players, a few Americans and Canadians and a KGB agent. The Russians, for the most part, don’t tell them anything they don’t want to.
And the North Americans, although knowledgeable about the basic facts of what happened don’t really know what went on in Russia during the 1980s. The film could’ve done with more Russian sources.
And the ones he does interview keep a lot to themselves. There are very few times during the film that you feel you’ve gotten anywhere close to the full story out of any of the Russians. Maybe you can blame the Russians for being wary of an outsider but Polsky too must take some blame. He is too timid in the interviews and allows himself to be shut down too easily.
When Fetisov is asked was something impossible back in the 80s he responds, “What do you mean ‘impossible’?” It’s a tactic he repeats during the film. “What do you mean by ‘this’?” “What do you mean by ‘that’?” And Polsky doesn’t know how to deal with it.
We learn a lot about the Soviet team and it is an interesting story, but you’ll also leave the cinema feeling like there are more secrets here that only the team and those who controlled it will ever know.
12A (see IFCO for details)
Red Army is released 9th October 2015