By Stephen Mayne @
In the latter half of the twentieth century, the US and the Soviet Union fought a battle for ideological supremacy. A crude and particularly western view of the conflict saw it as a straight fight between the forces of freedom and creative enterprise against a brutally rigid system of oppression. Even taking that bombastic brand of propaganda at face value, the argument doesn’t exactly apply in the world of men’s Ice Hockey. On this frozen field of war, the Soviet Union dominated, elevating the sport to a thing of beauty as they skated their way around flatfooted and violent opponents with breath-taking artistry. At least on the rink, Soviet collectivism trumped capitalist individualism. Red Army documents the rise and fall of the national team; director Gabe Polsky demonstrating impressive finesse of his own as he expands this sporting tale into a wider examination of the Soviet system.
While sports films, and indeed sporting contests, often overplay their claims to represent a political proxy war, it’s a charge with some validity in this case. For the USSR, ice hockey really was a national religion. The fortunes of the Soviet team tied in with an image the ruling Communist Party wished to present to the world. That this image was ultimately built on harsh and crumbling foundations supports Polsky’s angle. Using interviews structured around his crown prize, USSR captain and later NHL star Viacheslav Fetisov, and a superb collection of archive footage, he traces the highs and lows of the team, and ties it into corresponding changes in the Soviet Union.
Even before Red Army starts digging beneath the surface, the sheer beauty of the game as played by the USSR is immediately apparent. A rush of clips show the team in full flow, skating in unison, passing continually, and working their way into scoring positions with a grace not usually associated with a sport better known for its physicality and propensity for on-ice fights.
A convincing argument is made for the development of this style. As befits the official aims of their society, the team played like a team. No individual becomes too important with the emphasis on fluid movement, possession of the puck, and most importantly, teamwork. Everyone had to be able to work alongside everyone else for the system to function. And work it really did. Over nine Olympic Games from 1956 to 1988, the Soviet men’s team won gold seven times (an effectively Soviet Unified Team made it eight in 1992). Fetisov, a sparky figure frequently arguing back with Polsky or pausing the interview to take calls, has two himself, plus a silver after losing the infamous “miracle on the ice” game in 1980 where a heavily fancied Soviet team lost to the Americans. Polsky even digs up a quote from the US coach who boldly proclaims it as a victory of economic systems as well as sport.
1980 proves to be a freak event – there’s no keeping down a team this good. Much of the success is attributed to visionary coach Anatoli Tarasov. A true student of the game, schooling himself in outside sources from history to chess, he operates at a level far above the usual changing room rabble rousers. His techniques see players taught to weave, crawl and drag tyres and pylons to increase strength and agility. The argument that their unique regimen helped build the skills that were to dominate the sport is made repeatedly through the archive footage.
The urge to lapse into endless hockey highlights, no matter how mesmerising they prove, is resisted. Instead, the focus switches to the dark side of the Soviet system, and with it, a direct link to the society around them. After offending Brezhnev, Tarasov is forced off the scene. A harsh taskmaster arrives in Viktor Tikhonov, a man who drags the players away for eleven month training camps. They’re rarely allowed out to see family, and most work excruciating hours. It becomes too much for some who quit. Others rebel and find themselves kicked off the team. The contrast between the ethereal on-ice play and gruelling abuse off is made clearly, though one area Red Army neglects is the impact Tikhonov’s style had on the play. Did this appalling treatment push them onto superhuman feats or did it hinder them? Fetisov and several players speak of their dislike for the coach yet they still achieved greatness under him. It’s a rare oversight.
The most important leap is made carefully, and without hyperbole. As the 80s roll on, the viability of the Soviet Union as a political and economic entity decreases. Fissures open, initially on a small-scale. Players walk away from the team when they are pushed too hard, patriotic pull – all of them are technically serving members of the Red Army – no longer enough. Personal reward widens the cracks. No one gets rich playing for the national team. They’re just workers after all. Fame follows but not money.
As the Soviet system starts to break, opportunities previously unimaginable become possible. Red Army concludes by following the players, spearheaded by Fetisov, as they fight for the right to play in the NHL and receive salaries commensurate with their worth in the North American market, a concept previously unthinkable in the Eastern bloc’s heyday. Fetisov’s desire to secure freedom for his own career makes for a thrilling, and ultimately melancholy ending. He succeeds, and goes on to win the Stanley Cup twice. It’s vindication of his own individual talents having honed them in a team that placed so little emphasis on the individual. The end result enriched the NHL by bringing the exquisite Soviet play to a league renowned for rough and ready aggression. It also symbolised the end of a political project.
Amidst a crumbling economy, Polsky uses the Soviet players as a test case. They’re initially sent to the US on contracts that see a significant percentage of their salaries funnelled back to the State. But by opening up to capitalism, the moribund State is finally swept away. These days, Russian players live the good life in the NHL free from the Soviet strait-jacket, but the Russian team has fallen away as a power. There’s been only one Olympic medal for the men since the fall of the USSR, a bronze in 2002 won by a team managed by Fetisov. Modern day Russia, flooded with flash money, lost the collectivist sentiment that held the old society together, without establishing the western institutions that do a similar job. Men like Fetisov, straddling both eras, are cast adrift, though he fights on, playing an active role in politics.
Polsky manages to turn a well-made sporting documentary into the decline and fall of the USSR without ever giving the impression of overreach. Fetisov and his teammates provide a thrilling window into a seldom seen world. Yes, it’s ice hockey as an art-form. But the true brilliance of Red Army is that it’s so much more.
Red Army is released into cinemas this Friday, October 9th. Read our interview with director Red Army Gabe Polsky here.