Director: Gabe Polsky
MPAA Rating: (for thematic material and language)
Running Time: 1:25
Release Date: 11/14/14 (limited); 1/23/15 (wider); 2/6/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 5, 2015
Anything can become a metaphor for pretty much anything else. That seems especially true of sports. Consider the oftentimes torturous ways people try to make a game a stand-in for something it isn't (e.g., baseball as the American Dream, war as chess, etc.). Red Army, a documentary about the Soviet Union's national hockey team, starts off by seeing the game of hockey as a metaphor for a lot of things, particularly the Soviet political system and the Cold War. There must be a certain level of separation for a metaphor to work, though, and director Gabe Polsky sees a direct correlation between the Soviet Union's philosophy of hockey and the country's political system.
That, the movie argues, is why the "Red Army Team," as it became known in the West, was as successful as it was. It operated the way any totalitarian regime does. Children were trained to believe that hockey was a primary source of national pride—that to play hockey was essentially a form of patriotism. There was a school for the sport where kids would practice and try out to become part of the team. If someone had the skill necessary to become a member of the club, he joined not only the team but also the Soviet Army.
That's how important hockey was to the Soviet Union. It was essentially a division in the military, and the training regimen had the same sort of rigor. Former players tell stories here of spending 11 months out of the year practicing at a camp. They would get about 36 days of "leave" each year.
In archival footage of an interview on Soviet television, one of the players explains how his daughter has trouble recognizing him when he returns home. In a newspaper article announcing that he's quitting the team, another player refers to the coach as a "dictator." His wife explains how, after the article was published, the phone at home stopped working, people would actively avoid them, and every ice rink denied her husband access for practice. In their minds, he wasn't just a quitter. He was a traitor.
The team played in the Communist fashion—as a collective. The players were well-known, but it was the team that was famous. They weaved around each other, passing the puck when any other team would take a shot on the goal. Their opponents could barely keep track of the players, let alone the puck. The Soviets saw the team's domination on the ice as evidence that Communism worked. It certainly got the West nervous. When an inexperienced group of American college players defeated the Soviet team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in the "Miracle on Ice," the team's coach got a call from President Carter. It was proof that the American way of life was the superior one.
That event, though, was an anomaly in the history of the Soviet team, which gets an insider's deconstruction in the movie. Polsky compiles a series of interviews with assorted journalists and, of course, the players (The "dictator" of a coach, unsurprisingly, declined to be interviewed).
The primary interviewee is Viacheslav Fetisov, one of the defenseman on the team's first line. He's surprisingly open about gossip (especially about the coach, whom he believes benefitted more from the team than the team did from him) and drama, but it's only surprising when one takes into account how defensive he becomes when Polsky asks him about politics. After relating how the Soviet Ministry of Defense gave him unprecedented freedom to play in the National Hockey League, Fetisov becomes suspiciously mum on the subject after Polsky asks for clarification.
A similar thing happens when Polsky asks Alexei Kasatonov, the other starting defenseman, why he didn't publicly support his teammate when the government threatened to prevent Fetisov from playing hockey. Polsky hints at some form of backroom conversation, and the most we get from Kasatonov is the absence of a denial.
There's a reason for these silences and moments of antagonism (Fetisov becomes especially angry when the director gives his opinion on the causes of the Cold War). Polsky keeps it from us until near the end of the movie, during which it's suggested that the new boss is wearing the old boss' clothes (but that they've been dyed blue from the original red). The intentional withholding of the players' current statuses is a bit dishonest on Polsky's part, especially considering what the revelation says about these people's view of the past on the present. We get the notion that they want more than just to retell past hockey-related glories. They want to reignite a sense of perceived glory from the past on a national level, too.
The incompletely forthcoming nature of the movie's subjects and director only becomes apparent as the movie progresses. The combination, though, might explain why Red Army feels like such a simple and straightforward dissection of the team, as well as everything that Polsky believes this hockey team reflects about the Soviet Union and the Cold War. There are enough pieces of this story missing or detached from context that hockey here does start to become the kind of metaphor that the movie seems to want to avoid.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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