Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review: Red Army (2014)

* * * 1/2

Between 1954 and 1991, the Soviet Union medalled at every IIHF World Championship and Olympic hockey tournament, winning 7 Olympic Gold medals and 19 World Championship Gold medals. To put that properly in perspective, during this same period Canada, hockey nation itself, won 4 World Championship Golds, no Olympic Golds, and missed the podium entirely on 4 occasions at the Olympics and 8 at the Worlds. The United States' may have claim to the Miracle on Ice, but the Soviets owned the game for a period of nearly 40 years. In Red Army, director Gabe Polsky examines roughly 14 of those years, plus a few beyond, largely through the eyes of Slava Fetisov, a former Soviet team Captain, and uses his long and fraught road to the NHL to chart the decline of the Soviet Union itself. As told by Polsky and Fetisov, Red Army's story makes for an often fascinating film about sports, politics, and personal character, that is never less than wholly entertaining.

In its opening stretch, Red Army centers on the development of the Soviet "system," overseen and developed by coach Anatoli Tarasov, and which emphasized constant motion on ice and having the players on the ice moving together as one, rather than as individuals, valuing a mental/finesse style of play over a physical one. It was this system that Fetisov entered into as a child, being singled out as a player who could be developed into a piece of a winning team and nurtured until he came of age to graduate into the senior team, though "nurture" seems like the wrong word to use for a system which required players to live in isolation together for 11 months of the year, allowed to do essentially nothing except develop their game. Fetisov, though hilariously irascible in his interviews with Polsky, for the most part speaks fondly of his time working with Tarasov, where he became not just one half of a successful defense pairing with Alexei Kasatonov, but part of a powerhouse five player unit with Kasatonov and forwards Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov. Tarasov would run the national hockey program until after the 1972 Olympics, when he was fired and eventually replaced by the dictatorial Viktor Tikhonov (the film presents events as though Tikhonov replaced Tarasov, but in actuality there were 6 years and 2 other coaches before Tikhonov ascended to the position as head coach), whose takeover of the team becomes, in the film, the demarcation between the "good days" and the "bad days" of the team.

If there's a villain in Red Army, it's Tikhonov - which is no small feat, as at once point Fetisov tells a story about having to face down the Soviet Defense Minister who later participated in the attempted military coup that resulted in the dissolution of the Union. Working under Tarasov may have been no picnic but, as the film tells it, working with Tikhonov was an experience akin to torture with the coach exercising almost complete control over the players' lives and, in Fetisov's case, dangling the promise that he would be allowed to play in the NHL only to revoke the promise each time Fetisov did what he wanted. Eventually Fetisov tired of Tikhonov's mind games and quit the Red Army team, resulting in him and his family becoming pariahs in their community and facing the threat of violence from the government, which considered Soviet dominance in sport as a key part of its propaganda machine. Unable to play or even to practice anywhere, Fetisov sought out Tarasov as his trainer, keeping himself in physical shape for his eventual return to the ice, which would come in 1989 when the Soviet Union agreed to let its players play in the NHL, partially in response to the defection of player Alexander Mogilny and in order to prevent further defection. There was just one hitch: Soviet players could play in the NHL, but they had to hand over the bulk of their salaries to the government, something that Fetisov refused to do, resulting in further negotiations between himself and the Soviet government before he was finally allowed to join the NHL and eventually add two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings to his enormous collection of hockey medals and achievements.

Red Army is a story about hockey, and in particular about the contrast between the style of hockey played in North America compared to Europe, but it's also a story about international politics and the complex relationship that a person can have with their government. Nothing about what Fetisov, and others interviewed in the film, describes about life in the Soviet Union makes it sound to an outsider like a regime that one would want to live under, and yet Fetisov, for all that he went through during the years of the Soviet Union, doesn't present as relieved to be free of it. Fetisov clashed with Tikhonov, but he was always proud to be part of the Red Army and what it symbolized, and when he was finally allowed to go and play in the NHL, he didn't treat it as an "escape" from the Soviet Union but as an opportunity to help bring Soviet-style play to North America. When the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997, Fetisov took the Cup to Moscow to show it off after talking NHL commissioner Gary Bettman out of his initial objections to the Cup going to Russia (of all the things Fetisov has accomplished, this might actually be the most amazing, as any hockey fan knows that Bettman is basically the Devil), and the culture shock he experiences at seeing the "new" Russia, and his lamenting of the loss of structure and discipline, is one of the film's most fascinating aspects.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Polsky uses the Soviet hockey program as a metaphor for life under the Soviet regime itself. It was a system built on structure and discipline, one which was mentally rigorous and demanding, which suppressed individuality to force a feeling of collectivity (in a telling passage, Polsky asks a player to describe his teammates and he can only say that they were all alike; when pressed, he just sort of looks off into the distance as if he can't grasp the concept that different people might have different personalities and interior lives), and it was brutal (though one of the interesting aspects, at least in terms of hockey, is that the Soviet-style was a lot less physically rough than that played in North America, which made it somewhat difficult for Soviet players to adapt to the NHL in the first few years), but which, at least in terms of hockey, also got results. As the Soviet team, the Red Army dominated to 19 World and 7 Olympic championships, but since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian hockey team has won 1 Olympic Gold and 4 World Championship Golds and failed to make the podium at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships. While the nation may have gained democracy (and "may" is what the film suggests in its closing moments), it also lost something essential, be it a sense of unity or pride or patriotism. What comes through the most in Polsky's interviews with Fetisov is a quiet longing for the way things used to be, even though by his own admission they were bad even for him as a beloved athlete. Fetisov's frequent challenging of Polsky's assumptions, of his attempts to frame the narrative in a certain way, plays a huge role in elevating Red Army from a straightforward sports documentary to something a bit deeper and which touches on the way that sports is an easy conduit for knee-jerk patriotism (or regionalism, as footage of the 1997 Cup run shows Detroit fans openly embracing and rooting for the Russian players on the team, when just a few years earlier some were questioning whether letting the players into the league was a good thing at all). Fetisov's crankiness and unwillingness to give Polsky an inch in their interviews also helps make the film incredibly entertaining and sometimes unintentionally funny whenever Fetisov digs in his heels and refuses to be drawn in the direction that Polsky wants to take him. If you like hockey, Red Army has a lot to offer both in terms of its story and the archival footage that it uses throughout. If you don't like hockey, Red Army still has a lot to offer simply as an interesting story wonderfully told.

No comments: