Review: 'Red Army' offers up a smart and funny documentary about Cold War hockey
CANNES -- When I was a kid, the Soviet Union was the source of many long nights worth of nuclear nightmares, the Communist empire that we were warned would be coming for us one day. They were The Enemy, and we were indoctrinated with an infantile form of geopolitics, Us Vs Them. The Cold War was a constant presence, drilled into us from the moment we were old enough to understand the basics of "There are bad guys, and they want to kill you." Even today, when I talk to people my age who never shook that programming off, I am amazed how well they drilled that message into us, and how pervasively ugly it was.
As much as there were financial and political issues in play, the ideological war of Communism Vs Democracy was the biggest thing they tried to teach us. Never mind that they weren't technically communists and we're not technically a democracy. It made for a compelling narrative, and it seemed to motivate any number of advances for both nations. One particular triumph on the Soviet side involved their hockey program, and the film "Red Army" tells the story of how that happened.
What I did not expect when I went into the film today was that it would be so funny, but as soon as it begins, it sets a tone and it maintains it for the full running time. Gabe Polsky has made a smart and incisive film about an important moment in the history of a now-fallen empire, and he happened to make it wildly entertaining as well. No easy feat.
I am old enough to remember the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and the intense feelings of nationalism that surrounded the entire event. It was way more than just a hockey game. After all, the Red Army hockey team were rightly feared as the single greatest hockey team to ever play the game, and watching Polsky's film, we get a great idea of how they reached that point before they took the ice that year. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the various hockey players who were part of that team, and Slava Fetisov, who is the primary interview in the film, is a fascinating character with a blunt, knife-sharp sense of humor and very little interest in sensationalizing the story. He tells his version of things with an unadorned matter-of-fact quality, and he's a compelling speaker. He also presents a fairly clear-eyed portrait of what life was like growing up in the Soviet Union, and that's probably the most significant material in the film.
One of the truly insidious things about the way the Cold War worked in the media is that it created an idea that the people living in the Soviet Union were "other," unknowable aliens whose lifestyles were so different from ours that common ground was impossible. I remember how sappy Sting's song "Russians" was even at the time, and I always wondered how he was able to earnestly sing the line "I hope the Russians love their children, too," without throwing up in his own mouth. "Red Army" explodes that notion by showing us how Russian children were sold the fantasy of being members of the Red Army hockey team, a dream that is no different than the way modern kids grow up dreaming of the NFL or the NBA.
Polsky isn't afraid to make himself the butt of the joke at times, leaving in many awkward interview moments where it seemed like Fetisov could barely restrain his contempt. But the film itself is not glib. There is some genuinely emotional material here, and like the very best sports documentaries, this uses the sports story to discuss society, human behavior, politics, and modern history. This isn't a film about the individual games, but rather the importance of the sport itself, and the stories of the men who gave their hearts to the game and to their country.
One of the things that is missing from the film is an exploration of what the legacy of the Red Army means to modern Russians, but it does make a connection I found interesting. Fetisov is now a politician in Russia, and he seems to have some very specific ideas about where his country should be heading. Polsky suggests that many of the people who hold positions of power in the current Russian system are products of the Soviet Union era, and to them, the Soviet Union is perhaps an idealized memory.
If nothing else, "Red Army" makes the case that ours is not the only nation that has plenty of citizens who mistakenly long for "good old days" that may not have actually existed. I'm curious to see what happens with the film, and when you'll get a chance to check it out for yourself.