Videophiled: Politics on ice in ‘Red Army’

Red Army
Sony

Red Army (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Director Gabe Polsky, the Chicago-born son of Russian immigrants, dreamed of playing pro hockey and ended up making movies. This documentary, his directorial debut, finds the intersection of sports triumph, political gamesmanship, and personal sacrifice in the story of the powerhouse Soviet national hockey team of the eighties, when it won two Olympic gold medals and seven World Championships.

The story is built around interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, the former team captain, and Polsky begins the film with a scene of Fetisov more engaged with his cell phone than with the interviewer (“It’s business,” he explains) and flipping him the finger when Polsky keeps peppering him with questions. Clearly both Polsky and Fetisov have a sense of humor, which helps move us into the story through Fetisov and his teammates, which is not humorous at all. We learn about the rigorous training regimen that kept the men from their families 11 months out of the year, which drilled into them the distinctive playing style that confounded western teams. The players became national heroes, at least for time, but were essentially prisoners of their success. They were under constant pressure to win as a matter of national dignity and political pride.

The sports story is also our entry into a culture, and this hockey film provides no less than a sideways look into the way that communist USSR controlled its athletes—the Red Army Team players were indeed treated like soldiers whose field of battle was the ice rink—and the dramatic changes that occurred in both the political and social culture of the Soviet Union. From the Cold war climate of the eighties through the introduction of perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of capitalism and a new kind of political power, the players were pawns in a global PR campaign.

Fetisov is a commanding personality in the film and his story is great true-life drama. In the late 1990s, when Fetisov and his former teammates from the eighties squad were in their mid- to late-thirties, five former Red Army stars were brought together on the Detroit Red Wings squad and, under Coach Scotty Bowman, recreated their unique Soviet style of play in the NHL for two Stanley Cup championships. It’s a happy ending for a turbulent life.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by director Gabe Polsky and executive producer Werner Herzog and Q&A with Polsky from the Toronto International Film Festival screening. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are an extended interview with Coach Scotty Bowman (the winningest coach in NHL history), a Q&A with Polsky and former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and deleted scenes. Also on Cable On Demand and VOD.

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