When a documentary focuses on a subject I know nothing about
and holds me in its grip from start to finish, it earns my utmost respect and
admiration. Gabe Polsky’s Red Army
tells a fascinating story in a lively, even impudent manner, and is definitely
worth seeing. I care nothing about hockey, but when I saw that the film was
being presented by Jerry Weintraub and Werner Herzog—a show-business odd couple
if there ever was one—I figured it had to be tried.
This is the story of the Soviet hockey team in its glory
years, from the 1950s through the early 90s. The U.S.S.R. recruited the most
talented players when they were just children, as we learn from the film’s
“star,” Vyacheslav Fetisov, who was sent to training camp when he was 9. The
team was a source of Soviet pride and was used as a propaganda tool. Eventually,
he and four other well-disciplined athletes became national heroes as the
Russian Five, a beautifully coordinated squad who played as one. Their fatherly
coach, Anatoly Tarasov, took inspiration from chess and ballet and it showed in
their peerless performance on the ice (in spite of their famous—and
unprecedented–loss to the U.S. the 1980 Olympic Games).
When Tarasov was summarily replaced by a harsh, humorless
K.G.B. official named Viktor Tikhonov, everything changed. The players spent
eleven months of the year as virtual prisoners in their training camp, cut off
from family and friends. Tensions grew higher during Perestroika when the
National Hockey League began recruiting Russian players and the Soviets dealt
with the jarring experience of living in America, away from the regimentation
they were accustomed to for so many years.
All of this is told with immediacy and vigor by Polsky, who
serves as off-camera interviewer and instigator. Unlike some people in his
position, he knows when to prod and when to shut up; he and editors Eli B.
Despres and Kurt Engfehr use their
subjects’ silences and hesitations to great effect. Fetisov (known as Slava)
turns out to be a charismatic figure as he recounts his often-surprising
experiences in Russia and the U.S. over the decades.
Red Army is a
revelatory film that helps clarify many aspects of the Cold War and its
aftermath. It’s also very entertaining, even for a non-sports fan like me.