It was a day and a time that the earth stood still. It was at the 1980 Winter Games. It was a moment of history. What was it? A scrappy, ragamuffin group of American college kids stood against a seemingly unstoppable Soviet team. Though defeat was expected, the Americans stood fast. Unbelievably, beyond merely standing... they won. Pride swelled in American hearts. They said it couldn't be done. We were the victors. And I suppose it it hadn't been for the fact that the Soviet team soundly defeated us the next two Olympics, it would have been a perfect Hollywood ending to the Cold War. But why Hockey?
Why hockey is brilliantly answered in Gabe Polskym's documentary: Red Army. Red Army is a visually stunning and engrossing tale. Though a rich tapestry of collages combined with interviews, director Gabe Polskym is able to make an epic tale incredibly intimate. Similar to a tale of Tolstoy the grand is made simple. Remember during the Cold War the stand against the Soviet juggernaut shaped much of post World War II American society. As established by Stalin, athletics were vigorously supported as they could be seen as effective ambassadors of Soviet might.
Tensions on both sides remained high. Proxy wars were fought against encroaching ideologies with accompanying loss of life. Brinkmanship between the two sides led to the world to the cusp of nuclear war. Yet we knew so little of the Russians beyond a stereotype of little more than a brooding thug. Polskym masterfully uses the one area where the two countries met and issued diplomacy via pedestrian combat: sports. Not merely any sport, but one where the Soviets were undisputed masters... Hockey.
A sports documentary? Sound like a crazy idea. Not really. Just as When we were kings was a boxing documentary not really about boxiing, Red Army is a hockey documentary... not really about hockey. Well I guess I should take that back. Hockey really couldn't be avoided. But it serves as the entry into a deeper and much more personal world. A world of fierce loyalty, friendship, and brotherhood with the rise and fall of the Soviet Hockey team matching that of Soviet Russia. The documentary is full of voices surrounding the Soviet team however most are centered on interviews with Slava Fetisov. He was the Captain of the Soviet Team known for its speed and fluidity.
Through these interviews, Polskym revealed much of a Russian character that is seemingly full of contradictions. At first the contradictions seem obvious. For example, the foundation of fluidity and adroit skill that the Russians were famous for was ingrained by a rolly-polly coach who resembled St. Nick more than he a Baryshnikov. Or when Fetisov was told by his supervisors that he would be Captain of the team he refuses until his teammates vote and agree for this decision. While treated like Kings, the Soviet team was isolated and had to endure grueling training for 10 months out of the year. In the decline of Empire, the Soviet team is sold/leased off piecemeal to the National Hockey Team. The players reunited in the Detroit Red Wings led to consecutive back to back Stanley Cups. One of the first things that Fetisov wants to do... is take the Stanley Cup to Russia.
This longing for return leads to a surprising end. But these are the obvious contradictions. To a much more surprising level is how Polskym reveals some of the hidden character of these men.
Where Polskym excells however is by merely letting the camera roll. He shows a trait of those interviewed of answering... but not revealing. For example we facts such as Fetisov being the cause of the death of his younger brother, or the pain of a betrayal by a fierce friend are introduced and then a wall surrounds those interviewed. Allowing the viewers only to tell the unspoken on the face and carriage of the subjects.
Red Army is an interesting an entertaining documentary.