I can’t recall the last time I saw a documentary in which the people behind the camera were so clearly out of their depth as they are in Red Army. Now, it takes someone with a fair share more gumption than that possessed by the average reedy doc filmmaker to go toe-to-toe with hardened former Soviets, so the bar is already raised. But said former Soviets just run circles around their interviewers here. Slava Fetisov, the main character, is on his phone multiple times. He pulls out his cell in the middle of talking to the filmmakers, and they can only watch helplessly. The movie ends with Fetisov dismissing director Gabe Polsky as a “nice kid from LA,” and the last words before the final cut to black are Polsky feebly protesting that he’s from Chicago.
It’s hilarious, of course, but it’s also why Red Army isn’t much more than a shallow look at the Soviet Union’s dominance of ice hockey during the Cold War. At one point, the story hits a period when Fetisov was estranged from his former teammate and best friend. They both resolutely refuse to discuss any personal details of the feud on camera. And … that’s the end of that! The doc moves along without this vital piece of character development. Great digging, filmmakers.
It’s easy to see why these moments with the subjects blithely defying the filmmakers were left in — it gives the movie entertainment value that’s at least one or two notches above that of the average informational doc. It’s certainly novel for a film to steer into a swerve and admit its shortcomings upfront, rather than try to paper them over. If nothing else, no other film I can think of has an elderly ex-KGB agent trying to speak while his tiny granddaughter does random things both behind and in front of him. Once, he ordered the deaths of capitalist pigs, and now he’s reduced to chatting with some Hollywood schmucks about hockey. I’m not sure I’ve felt so patriotic recently.
Here’s the rough arc of Soviet hockey:
- The Russians realized they were good at the sport; hell, much of their country is in perpetual fimbulwinter, so one would hope so.
- Soviet players were put into psychotic training programs.
- They beat the ever-loving shit out of every other countries’ teams for a while.
- The events of the 2004 movie Miracle went down, because only America can hope to trump another superpower in relentless sports-ing.
- The coach everyone loved got replaced with a coach everyone hated (and still hates).
- The national team continued to kick ass and take names, before handing the names over to the State for alleged equal redistribution.
- Perestroika and glasnost happened, and a lot of players defected (sometimes literally) to American teams.
- The Soviet Union collapsed, and the red dream was over. Sad faces all around.
Red Army is a nice, chilled hunk of ostalgie. The various participants recall fondly when they were part of something greater than themselves, how they were fighting for Communism in their own unique way. The best parts of the film tackle the weird intersection of sports and politics, especially the unique way that this phenomenon manifested during the Cold War, when one superpower’s victory over the other was taken as a demonstration of the clear superiority of its political system. If nothing else, it’ll sate your yearning for some craggy-faced old men being cantankerous.