Friday, January 30, 2015

Red Army Movie Review

More than the Ice Was Cold
by Susan Barocas (Contributing Editor)

Let me just say this from the start: I don’t like hockey. So when I tell you I saw Red Army twice in eight days quite happily, you know there is something special happening on the screen.

Red Army is feature documentary about the legendary Russian national hockey team in the last half of the 20th Century, as told through the eyes of their remarkable defenseman, Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov. Hockey was one of the Soviet’s best political weapons, both inside the country and to the rest of the world. And, as one of the national team’s most prominent players, Fetisov was at various times loved and reviled by his own government.

For the totalitarian Soviets, hockey was part of the battle for domination... sports as a kind of warfare, as one journalist says in the film. Red Army tackles much more than just what happened on the cold ice. As those of us who are old enough remember, there was a Cold War going on at the time with all kinds of very serious East vs. West competition (remember the Space Race?) and threats - nuclear and otherwise.

Director Gabe Polsky, a former college hockey player, deftly handles weaving the story about the most successful team ever in sports history with this “big picture” of politics and modern history. Over the past decade, Polsky’s work has included producing the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary “His Way” about film producer Jerry Weintraub. He also co-directed, with his brother Alan, the 2013 indie favorite “The Motel Life.”

It’s a sign of Polsky's filmmaking skill that when we hear him on camera in exchanges with Fetisov, he strikes what seems to be just the right mix of deference, humor and defiance. As we get to know Fetisov more, we see that anything less would not have gotten the same extraordinary and revealing results.

When the film opens, Fetisov appears to be just another distracted bureaucrat, juggling cell phones and ignoring the film crew. But once the story gets going - starting with Fetisov’s selection at age 10 for the Red Army training team - it doesn’t stop, moving like the hockey players in the film, back and forth across the ice, sometimes darting quickly and other times slowing down for a big sweep of the ice.

Through the years, the team comes together as a tight unit, especially the best ever “Russian Five,” with Fetisov becoming the youngest-ever captain of the team. Win after win, they demolish even the best professional hockey teams in the US. But then there’s what we call “the miracle on ice,” when the Red Army lost the gold medal to the US in the 1980 Olympics. It adds new depth to that moment in history, to see what happens to the silver medal team because along with the history and politics, what this film shows us so well is the other side, off the ice and behind the Iron Curtain - the extreme personal sacrifices and costs extracted by the brutal Soviet system that demanded, as Fetisov says, “No individuality, no emotions beyond sport.”

Fetisov is the kind of character screenwriters dream of creating: an engaging, complex character who is much beloved and sometimes misunderstood, a fighter with a brain and sense of humor…an imperfect person who is still more than he seems to be. And in this well-constructed movie, he’s not the only character who engages us. There are other players, coaches and even a wife - full of friendship and conflict, acts of courage and betrayal, patriotism and defection… and in the end, a kind of redemption that comes with living enough years to gain some perspective and understanding of our own lives as well as our collective history.

Whether you think you know or love hockey - or not - Red Army will warm you up, as we always hope a movie might on a cold winter night.

Grade: A