Gabe Polsky has nothing against 1980’s Miracle on Ice love-in. He just thinks there’s an equally compelling, largely untold story to be shared about some of the men on the losing side of the epic contest.
So he’s done it. The Chicago-born filmmaker, whose credits include the critically acclaimed The Motel Life, makes his documentary directorial debut with Red Army, a tale about the rise and fall of the most dominant team ever in sports and the sociopolitical backdrop against which it’s set.
“The thing most people in the West know about Soviet hockey is the 1980 disaster,” says Polsky, the son of Russian immigrants. “What many don’t know is how and why they were so good. I think that’s almost more miraculous – how amazing these guys were (for so long).”
Polsky, who was a third-line center at Yale from 1998-2001 before going all-in on a movie-making career, says he became fascinated with the Soviet hockey system as a youth player when he was coached by a Russian native. As he learned more about the creative, commanding style of play, and the propaganda machine behind it, it fueled his inspiration.
With the support of Hollywood heavy hitter producers Jerry Weintraub and Werner Herzog, he embarked on a two-year project to capture the essence of the Red Army phenomenon, a club that won 32 of 46 Soviet league titles.
The film, expected to be released later this year, uses Slava Fetisov as its primary storyteller; the legendary defenseman was a touchstone for several generations of Red Army hockey and is reflective, Polsky says, of the Soviet people. “And that’s what this story is,” he says. “It’s not just a hockey movie. It’s a very deep and emotional story that gets into the Russian soul.”
Polsky conducted myriad interviews for the project, sitting down with Scotty Bowman, Alexei Kasatonov and Vladislav Tretiak, among others. He also says he had the final on-on-one with the late Vladimir Krutov before his passing in 2012. Through his research and interviews, he says he learned about the intense training methods, the unwavering team-building concepts, the totalitarianism of coach Viktor Tikhonov and the toll it took on the players.
“These guys were isolated in Soviet society,” he says. “For 11 months of the year, they lived together outside Moscow. They weren’t really allowed to leave.
“There are pluses and minuses. The pluses are they got so close they were able to create a masterpiece on the ice. It was like the Beatles, they knew each other so well. But they paid a huge price. You make huge sacrifices not being able to see your families, and having to be isolated like that is very difficult.”
The story arc includes the fall of the Iron Curtain and how things changed, irreversibly, for the Soviet hockey system subsequently. It also touches on how some of the nation’s greatest heroes were reduced to outcasts.
While he’s reticent to divulge too much about the film’s juicier revelations until closer to launch date, Polsky’s excited about how it’ll be perceived in the hockey community.
“What these guys say in their story will be very, very surprising, “ Polsky says. “They’ve opened up and were very honest. People perceive Russians as robotic and not very emotional, and it takes a little to get in there, but I was able to get inside a little bit.”
Here’s a trailer.