In the final minutes of Red Army, director Gabe Polsky pulls out some footage of Alex Ovechkin’s first season in the NHL. As part of a publicity stunt, Ovechkin is firing pucks at Russian dolls filled with Russian dressing. As the dolls explode and Ovechkin celebrates with glee, former Soviet hockey legend Slava Fetisov opines, “We lost something. We lost our pride. We lost our soul.”
Some will portray Red Army, which makes its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival next week and will hit theatres in February, as a clash of cultures. Some will take note of how Russia is back to its adversarial ways in Ukraine and compare it to the Cold War version, one that saw hockey and sports as an extension of the Communist propaganda machine and its best weapon in proving to the world that the ideals of socialism worked.
But more than anything, Red Army is so compelling because it is about the people, the most central character being Fetisov, and how complicated the relationship between hockey and politics is in that country. On one hand, Fetisov speaks of how intrusive and dictatorial the hockey system was under Viktor Tikhonov, then speaks about his country losing its soul when players such as Ovechkin are free to come to North America and chase millions of dollars. (It’s interesting that Ovechkin footage is displayed during Fetisov’s musings about the loss of Russian pride. There might not be an NHL player who is as loyal to and passionate about his country as Ovechkin, who answers the call of duty whenever it is made. In fact, some NHL fans complain Ovechkin cares more about Russia than he does the Washington Capitals.)
It all makes for an incredibly riveting 85 minutes of history and hockey. Seen primarily through the eyes of Fetisov, the greatest defenseman Russia has ever produced and one of the greatest of all-time, Polsky’s film is a study of the progression of the Soviet-Russian game from the 1950s through its deterioration in the 1990s to today. It has incredible footage of early hockey players going through drills under coaching legend Anatoli Tarasov, executing somersaults on the ice in full equipment with Tarasov on his knees in the background saying, “You’ll become great hockey players. And great men.” (The biggest strength of the film is the archival footage, which comes courtesy of Paul Patskou.)
There is film of Tarasov moving chess pawns on a hockey rink diagram – a subtle glimpse of how the players would feel playing later for the dictatorial Tikhonov – and dancing with members of the Bolshoi Ballet. A Red Army recruit from the age of eight, Fetisov talks about his career and the bond he shared with the other members of the Russian Five – defense partner Alexei Kasatonov and forwards Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov. One of the most gripping parts of the film comes when Polsky goes through footage of the game between USA and Russia at the 1980 Olympics. At times, Fetisov looks away as though he’s living the nightmare all over again. Other times he appears concerned and despondent. And by the end he has tears in his eyes.
Most of all, the film provides an illustration of the steely resolve the players had, particularly the ones who had to play for Tikhonov. (The former coach, who declined to be interviewed for the film, easily comes off as the biggest villain of the story. Fetisov recounts a time when Andrei Khomoutov was not allowed to leave the compound to visit his dying father. Fetisov’s wife tells of a time her husband, on the verge of playing in the NHL and growing more frustrated with being stonewalled, was captured by police in Kiev, handcuffed to a car battery and beaten until 4 a.m. According to Fetisov’s wife, Tikhonov then showed up and told police to do whatever they wanted, including throwing him in prison, but do not allow him to leave the country.)
Fetisov, it should be remembered, never defected. But he would also not go to the NHL with the government’s blessing if it meant he had to surrender any of his salary to the Soviet Union. Although Fetisov and Larionov, in particular, enjoyed wonderful NHL careers, the feeling is that once the players were separated, they were never the sum of their parts. That is, of course, until Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman formed his own version of the Russian Five with Fetisov and Larionov joined by Vladimir Konstantinov on defense and Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov at forward.
All in all, Red Army is well worth the time spent. Polsky, the son of Russian immigrants who played collegiate hockey at Yale, has made a movie raw with emotion and truth that totally hits the mark.
Red Army is being shown at the Toronto Film Festival Tuesday, Sept. 9 at 6:00 p.m. at Ryerson and on Wednesday, Sept, 10 at 11:45 a.m. at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.