by Jordan Canahai
If you have any interest at all in hockey I highly recommend checking out director Gabe Polsky’s excellent documentary Red Army, and if you’re like me and couldn’t care less about the sport I’d still suggest seeing it. Centered around legendary Russian defenseman Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov as he recounts his life and career, Red Army details the story of Soviet-Russia’s dominant hockey team, exploring the link between Russia’s national sport and politics, how Cold War tensions throughout the 70s and 80s impacted the game and how the eventual fall of Communism led to Russian players making their way to the U.S.
Some of the key events Red Army depicts are well known to sports fans, most famously the 1980 Olympic finals in which the underdog American team beat the Russian’s to pull off one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Red Army recounts the grueling physical and emotional toll Fetisov and his teammates endured in its aftermath, including months of rigorous training camps cut off from family and drilled with a militaristic intensity by the near-tyrannical coach Viktor Tikhonov. Red Army posits Tikhonov as the ultimate embodiment of soulless state power, oppressively pushing his players to the harshest extremes.
Far warmer are the player’s recollections of coach Anatoli Tarasov (dubbed “The father of Russian Hockey”). An avid lover of ballet and chess, with his influence the Soviets’ game was a beautiful dance of passing and crisscrossing that emphasized the team as a perfectly cohesive unit. The film’s thrilling hockey footage makes a strong case that Team Red Army, who perfected this style of play, are amongst the greatest group of athletes ever assembled. No wonder, when reunited with his Russian compatriots in the NHL, Fetisov led the Detroit Red Wings to two Stanley Cup wins. These latter scenes examine the rocky transition to the U.S. Fetisov and other Russian players had undergone in the 90s, both in how they were unaccustomed to the less elegant style of American hockey and the huge chunks of money their Russian handlers received out of their contracts.
The charming yet ornery Fetisov makes for a fascinating protagonist. A world-class athlete loved like a brother by his teammates, a man who balanced playing the sport he loved to support his family while carrying the weight of being a symbol of his country’s national pride. Though Polsky seems to frame his story as one of an individual oppressed by a rigid totalitarian machine, Fetisov simply sees himself, as well as the coaches and politicians he played for, as smaller parts of the much larger system. Unsurprising given where his story finds him at the film’s conclusion. Red Army functions effectively as a sports drama, a character study, and a political film.
Watch the trailer for Red Army
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