‘Red Army’: Superb hockey doc

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What is the most successful dynasty in sports history? Some will no doubt cite the fabled New York Yankees of baseball. Others may contend that it’s the Boston Celtics of the N.B.A.

However, this represents a provincial perspective. The dominance of these teams was limited to the United States. By contrast, the formidable hockey team assembled by the U.S.S.R. in the period between 1978 and 1992 dominated international competition. After being upset by the U.S. at the 1980 Miracle on Ice, they won three consecutive Olympic gold medals.  The Soviet hockey team also garnered eight World Championships.

For those who didn’t live during the Cold War, it is hard to imagine the hyperbolic excesses of that era. As written and directed by Gabe Polsky, “Red Army” does an effective job of using hockey as a metaphor for the ideological struggle that prevailed during the Cold War. The film also provides excellent insights into the current resurgence of rabid nationalism under Vladimir Putin.

In the post-World War II period, the U.S.S.R. battled the United States for global domination. It wasn’t just a struggle over geopolitical supremacy. There was a concomitant conflict between two rival belief systems, Communism and capitalism. Which would prevail?

Some will recall Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev at the United Nations General Assembly, banging his shoe on the desk, while he bellowed ominously, “We will bury you!” He seemed like a deranged villain straight out of professional wrestling.

The Soviets successfully penetrated U.S. national security and stole our atomic bomb secrets.  Then, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first man-made space satellite ever. Some Americans despaired that Krushchev’s threat would prove prophetic.

Against this backdrop, the Soviets also waged a propaganda war by mounting the world’s greatest hockey team. The Russian Red Army quintet consisted of scoring machine right-winger, Sergei Makarov, center Igor (“The Professor”) Larionov, and center Vladimir “”The Tank”) Krutov, were augmented by defensemen, Alexei Kasatonov and Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov.  The latter’s triumphs and travails form the narrative spine of “Red Army.” He is a useful frame of reference in depicting the evolution of the Soviet sports establishment and beyond that the demise of the U.S.S.R.

Fetisov was the captain of the Red Army team, which was characterized by their consummate grace and fluidity. He is considered one of the greatest players in the history of hockey.

Fetisov and his teammates flourished under their avuncular, roly poly coach, Anatoly Tarasov. The innovative coach liberally borrowed techniques from chess and the Bolshoi ballet, then applied them to the world of hockey. He was beloved by his players.

Everything changed radically when Tarasov was supplanted as coach by Victor Tikhonov, a high-ranking K.G.B. official. The cold-hearted tyrant alienated the layers with his dictatorial manner. This was epitomized by an incident in which Tikhonov barred a player from visiting his dying father.  Eleven months a year, Tikhonov required his players to live in a team compound, rather than with their families.

The New Jersey Devils of the N.H.L. offered Fetisov a lucrative contract to play with them. However, the Soviet government interceded to block the transaction. Chafing with resentment, Fetisov challenged the Soviet government’s control over his person. Once a national sports icon and recipient of the Order of Lenin medal, Fetisov was vilified as an enemy of the state. In retribution of his outspoken criticism, he was handcuffed to a radiator and beaten by the police. He is abandoned, even by his closest comrades and members of his family.

With the advent of Gorbachev’s ethos of glasnost and perestroika, Fetisov finally made it to the N.H.L. Alas, his pass-oriented style was incompatible with that of his teammates and he initially floundered. Xenophobic fans hurl derisive epithets at him. However, Scotty Bowman, the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, conjured up a solution.  He reunited Fetisov with his former Red army teammates. Collectively, they won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998.

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Red Army" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAXs7fReIgQ

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Red Army” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAXs7fReIgQ

Fetisov’s life trajectory had an ironic third act. Once demonized and pummeled by the goons of a prior regime, in 2002 Fetisov returned to Russia at the behest of Vladimir Putin. He was installed as Minster of Sport for six years. Currently, Fetisov serves as a senator in the Federal Assembly of Russia and is a prosperous businessman.

“Red Army” cobbles together compelling archival footage. We see Soviet youth, dating back to the ‘50s, who are competing for coveted spots in the state youth hockey program. These are juxtaposed with contemporaneous pro and anti-Soviet propaganda footage. This includes a pre-presidential, Ronald Reagan, who is shown railing against the Soviet way of life. The footage is well augmented by contemporaneous interviews of Fetisov; his wife, Ladlena; Scotty Bowman; Russian chess Grand Master, Anatoli Karpov; and various other talking heads.

Despite its brevity and limited production budget, “Red Army” is a superb documentary. It can be amply appreciated not only by hardcore hockey aficionados, but even those, who abhor sports.

**** PG (for thematic material and language) 85 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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