Simultaneously amusing and compelling, documentary film “Red Army” tells us a dramatic story about the rise and fall of Soviet ice hockey. Mainly through some of its best players, the documentary looks around their best and worst times during the Cold War era and its aftermath, and it is alternatively funny and poignant to see how these exceptional athletes tried their best together or separately under a big restrictive political system which did not allow them much of individuality or freedom.
The main center of its story is Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, who was the captain of the Soviet Union national team during his prime period. This middle-age Russian man initially looks rude and obnoxious as he pays more attention to his smartphone than answering the director Gabe Polsky’s questions (he even gives the middle finger to Polsky at one point), but he soon comes to us as a very interesting dude with strong personality as he begins to talk about his life and career.
Even before Fetisov was born in 1958, ice hockey was already a big thing in his country, and the Soviet Union, which fiercely competed with US in various fields for demonstrating the superiority of its communistic system during their Cold War, went all the way for making its Red Army Hockey Club, a.k.a. HC CSKA Moscow, into the best ice hockey team in the country – and the world. Any young Soviet kid talented in ice hockey wanted to be accepted by the Red Army training school, and Fetisov reminisces about how high the competition was among him and many other young hopefuls around the country during his first tryout.
After he was finally accepted into the training school, Fetisov and other young players were taught and trained by Anatoly Tarasov, a legendary coach who has been revered as ‘the father of Russian Hockey’. Inspired by chess and ballet, which were incidentally other major national assets to represent the power of the Soviet Union, Tarasov conceived elaborate team play strategies for his players, and we see how these strategies successfully worked through his players’ marvelous team work during the finals of the 1978 Junior World Championships held in Canada.
Fetisov and others all fondly remember Tarasov with respect and love, but they all despise Tarasov’s successor in contrast. Although he was not an ineffectual doofus at all, Viktor Tikhonov was harsh and ruthless in his demanding training methods as constantly abusing and insulting his players just like that monstrous music teacher in “Whiplash” (2014), and he pushed them further especially after the Soviet national team was shockingly defeated by the US national team during the finals of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Shoved into Tikhonov’s long, rigorous training program, Fetisov and other players did not have much free time for themselves or their families as endlessly training for almost 11 months per year, and they hated him more while dutifully obeying to him with no question. One player was not allowed to visit and see his dying father just because of his training schedule, and some player even joked that he would gladly use Tikhonov’s heart for his heart transplant surgery because Tikhonov never used his. In case of their goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, he eventually became sick of all of this, so he left the team early with no regret.
Regardless of whether Tikhonov’s Spartan training really did any good to his team, the Soviet national team did return with vengeance as winning the gold medals at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics and the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. Fetisov and other four prominent players of the Red Army Hockey Club (Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, and Alexei Kasatonov) were called “the Russian Five”, and they were literally an unstoppable big red machine whenever they put onto the rink together. As team members devoted to each other, they usually hanged around with each other a lot outside the rink, and Fetisov tells us how close he and his best friend Alexei Kasatonov were to each other during their years in the Red Army Hockey Club. They respected and cared about each other like real brothers, and, as they talk about each other on the screen, you can clearly see that their friendship and mutual respect have remained same as before despite one very hurtful moment between them later in their careers.
Meanwhile, disillusionment slowly began to grow among the Red Army Hockey Club players, and there also came a change which would sweep over not only them but also the whole nation. After Mikhail Gorbachev became its new leader in 1985, the Soviet Union began to open its closed door to the outside as a part of its reform process, and Fetisov and other players soon found themselves sought by several National Hockey League teams in US, though it was not so easy for them to get the permission from their government still having problems with its old totalitarian habits.
Ironically, there was another set of difficulties when they became far freer than they had ever imagined. Mainly because American ice hockey teams put more emphasis on individual plays than team plays, Fetisov and other Russian hockey players had to grapple with the rules of their new environment which were frequently confusing to them. Furthermore, American players were more blunt and brutal in their less elegant tactics, and that was certainly another shock to the system for Fetisov and his peers.
Deftly gliding around humor and pathos, Gabe Polsky, who previously co-directed small moving drama “The Motel Life” (2012) with his brother Alan Polsky, did a fabulous job of presenting his human subjects along with amusements and insights. Besides Fetisov, his three colleagues Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, and Vladislav Tretiak are equally interesting with each own perspective, and the other interviewees in the documentary also give us more understanding of their past era when sports and politics were almost inseparable from each other in many aspects. (I was especially amused by the interview scene of retired KGB agent Felix Nechepore, who is hilariously interrupted by his cute little granddaughter in the middle of his interview).
In spite of the daunting circumstance he faced in US, Fetisov did not step back as before, and how he and the other Russian players in the Detroit Red Wings dramatically bounced to the top is one of the most moving moments in the film. Although what he and his colleagues had achieved so hard crumbled down so quickly along with their former system, they survived anyway, and, as shown from the last scenes, they moved onto the next stage along with their country. For instance, Fetisov himself was the Russian Minister of Sports during 2002-8 (he is currently a member of the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia), and we see him working on the preparation and promotion for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. He is not a very good interviewee even during the last scene which gave me another chuckle in the end, but it goes without saying that he was a great hockey player to remember, and he and his colleagues surely lived an interesting time to observe.