RED ARMY Movie Review
“Documentaries about the sporting history of the former Soviet bloc” is quickly becoming one of my favorite micro-genres. Fitting squarely into this imaginary Netflix category is Gabe Polsky’s Red Army, a eulogy for the system that churned out world-class champion athletes with a ruthless consistency that somehow also works within the underdog narrative endemic to most fictional sports stories. The film zeroes in the heyday of Russian hockey in the 1980s, briefly examining what made the Soviets such a perfect Hollywood foil for America’s famous “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid, then telling the much less heralded, almost forgotten story of the group that emerged from that embarrassing upset to dominate international ice hockey for the rest of the decade.
The movie’s Rosetta Stone is Viachaslav “Slava” Fetisov, the English-speaking former captain of the Soviet national squad, who describes the glory days with a fascinating mix of nostalgia and resentment. Like all Soviet athletes, Fetisov and his teammates were supposed to represent the superiority of socialism with their elite level of play that emphasized teamwork over individual skill. Yet such a system also demanded that players sacrifice their personal agency for the good of the collective, as coaches who moonlighted as Politburo members strictly controlled nearly every aspect of their lives. In many ways, Polsky simply verifies the anti-communist talking points of the Reagan era with testimony from those who lived through it.
However, what makes Red Army interesting is its willingness to praise the system’s achievements as it simultaneously condemns its methods and confound the conventional Cold War narrative. Several of the film’s experts note that the Soviet hockey juggernaut was built on style of play actually emphasized innovation and creativity, a style that ran contrary to the foreign stereotype of the Soviets as agents of a rigid, unfeeling communist bureaucracy. The film also builds a convincing case for the success of puck-aided perestroika. As the 20th century came to a close, hockey was one of the few Soviet institutions that could actually support itself, leading a cash-strapped government to take the unfathomable step of leasing its state property – its star players – to the National Hockey League.
Red Army admittedly relies a bit too much on Fetisov, seemingly the most accessible and charismatic figure from the era explored by Polsky, as its main conduit for information. The old captain spins an interesting yarn, but the late-breaking revelation that Fetisov is now a cabinet minister in Vladimir Putin’s Russian government suddenly casts his commentary in a different light. (It also explains his contradictory tendency to be both blunt and evasive.) Note that this does not have an entirely negative effect: if Fetisov was truly as insubordinate to Soviet leadership as he claims, his status in the homeland today is actually quite remarkable. In the end, Red Army finds a novel way to deal with the heady conflation of sport and politics by illustrating how an ideology can take deep root within a culture, whether its comes from a government or a game.