Red Army is a documentary about hockey in Russia, focusing on the “Russian Five” (who we Americans might remember from the Olympic rivalry of the 1980's) with a focus on Alexandrovich “Slava” Fetisov. But because the sport of hockey has had such political importance to Russia, Red Army can also be viewed as a look at Russia from WWII to the present through the perspectives of those that lived on that side of things – and happened to be quite good at hockey.
As hockey became popular in Russia, the Red Army Club was founded under Stalin and given a large sum of resources to make hockey the sport, the sport that symbolized their greatness, with the best athletes the country could both find and make. Playing for the Red Army Club (yes, a part of the military, which you were drafted into to play) was a high honor that every child in the country wanted more than anything. Hockey was Russia, and Russia was hockey.
The point of the film is to give an honest look behind the curtain. The Russian hockey team, as propaganda, gave those of us that grew up in the 80's a certain image of them and their homeland. Was it really as harsh as they said? Were these cold monsters human?
A resounding yes to the first question. Historically we follow the decimated post-WWII Russia as Fetisov grows up. Reflective are the stories and footage of athletic training in the government facilities. It felt like one of those science fiction episodes where characters are kidnapped and forced to fight in an arena. Except it wasn't kidnapping as much as powerful nationalism. I'm reluctant to say brain washing only because the players don't see it that way even today looking back.
As for the cold monsters, that crown adorns much of the Russian chain of command through the decades, some more than others. Through eventual (inevitable?) Team Captain Fetisov, motivations are made clearer in this Cold War era. The players are shown as a band of war buddies, having gone through hardship after hardship together for Russian glory and personal pride.
Most of Red Army is split between two coaches. Anatoli Tarasov coached until 1975, a tough but fair man in love with not only the sport but art and creativity. He had the Red Army Club study under the Bolshoi Ballet, he brought in Russia's grand master chess player to drill strategy. Nationalist propaganda tool or not, this was really a beautiful fusion of athletics, tactics and artistry, perhaps more than any sports team in history. I am far from a sports enthusiast, but every clip of footage was masterfully elegant. My favorite moment in the movie is when Fetisov is asked how he feels about Viktor Tikhonov, the second coach, and his pupils explode like startled blowfish. No words necessary.
Needless to say, there was no love between Tikhonov and his players. He was in charge of nearly every aspect of their lives for 11 months a year. He declined to be interviewed, which is unfortunate. Tikhonov was the first but not the last overbearing authority figure that would come in conflict with Fetisov as his story progressed past the Olympics of the 1980's.
The main complaint I have with Red Army is director Gabe Polsky, not as a director but as an interviewer. These men he interviews are tough men who have gone through hell, and Polsky is a pushover. Although Polsky has a few Producer credits, I knew before I even checked IMDB that he was a first-time director. In fact, the movie starts with Polsky trying to ask Fetisov questions while Fetisov is dismissively on his cell phone. Much later, Fetisov is basically stabbed in the back by his best friend, and Polsky can get little to nothing out of either interviewee. A more confident and experienced documentarian would have gotten something, and would have gained some respect from his subjects along the way for being more bullish. It's not amateur hour, but this is not the movie in which to show weakness.
The cell phone touches on my other minor complaint, which is the odd placement of humor. It just always felt out of place, given the subject matter. It was never used to reflect a person's human side, but either to relieve tension or just because Polsky thought it was funny. Either way, it came off distracting.
Although Red Army lost a little steam once Gorbachev led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (spoiler), I enjoyed the contrast between the purity of the sport as the Russian Five saw it versus what it has become in present-day America. Imagine giving everything you have, every minute of your life, just to play, then traveling and seeing other athletes getting everything they can imagine by playing much worse. Culture shock and a half.
Red Army isn't just a sports documentary, but a look at a cloaked adversary from their own eyes, and the astounding greatness that came from a political machine.