How many sports documentaries begin with a film’s primary subject — arguably the greatest player of his generation in a major international team sport — flipping off the film’s director? None, but that’s only because writer/director Gabe Polsky’s remarkable Red Army can hardly be described as a sports documentary.
The former player in question is Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, captain of the Soviet Union’s national Red Army hockey team in the late 1970s and ‘80s when it was the best the world had ever seen. Red Army discovers in Fetisov’s storied career a multi-faceted reflection of Russia’s culture, politics and worldview at the end of the Cold War era. (Fetisov also played for NHL teams in the U.S. after perestroika began to transform the Soviet Union.) Even those with little interest in sports or international politics may find themselves riveted by Polsky’s moving tale of struggle and redemption in a complex and rapidly changing world.
Fetisov’s Red Army was a loser to the U.S. in a medals-round game of the 1980 Olympics widely known as the “Miracle on Ice.” (The Red Army would find redemption many times over in the ensuing years.) But that memorable name only scratches the surface of the Russian team’s perennial dominance or its unique approach to the sport. The Red Army played in an intensely imaginative and balletic style that emphasized puck control, passing and teamwork and made Western styles of play look selfish and violent by comparison. Among Red Army’s successes is the use of unseen archival footage — much of it culled from Russian vaults — to demonstrate the artistry of that country’s vision for the sport.
But how did a repressed and largely closed society like that of the Soviet Union bring creativity and openness to a century-old team sport? As the film takes us through the Westernization of Russian society and the clash of Red Army and NHL cultures, easy answers become hard to find — especially given long-held presumptions of both their formerly hidden world and our relatively transparent one.
Director Polsky is an American raised by Russian immigrant parents who played hockey at Yale University and dreamed of joining the NHL before turning to a career in film. As a teenager in Chicago he played hockey for a Russian coach who exposed him to that country’s emphasis on collective creativity in sport. Polsky’s background and personal history allow him to handle Fetisov’s and the Red Army’s stories from a place of rare familiarity. Red Army repeatedly defies expectation and follows information and analysis supplied by interview subjects wherever it may lead.
It’s not surprising the director reportedly was reluctant to insert himself into his film, as many documentarians do — Red Army is too well constructed and rich in detail to require an overarching voice. Polsky says he did so at the suggestion of his editors. Instead of guiding us through the film he appears occasionally off screen, whining or fumbling for words when confronted with indifference or mild abuse from his recalcitrant Russian subjects. It’s hard to reconcile these awkward encounters with Polsky’s sure hand as director. But he deserves much credit for putting vanity aside to include these revealing scenes. You might say he takes one for the team.
Red Army begins an exclusive run today, March 20, at the Elmwood Palace Theatre. More info here.