January 27, 2015

'Red Army' Recalls the Glory Days of Soviet Hockey

Slava Fetisov. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Among the most fascinating documentaries are those that not only illuminate an individual—a character—but the times in which they live. Robert McNamara in Errol Morris' The Fog of War…Philippe Petit in James Marsh's Man on Wire….Jacqueline Siegel in Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles: These are some of the more shining examples.

In writer-director Gabe Polsky's Red Army, the character is Slava Fetisov, and the times are the twilight of the Cold War.

Fetisov, for those unfamiliar with hockey history, is among the greatest players ever, who captained the mighty Soviet national team at the height of its world dominance in the 1980s. "His name is a synonym to the game," according to one Russian website.

Polsky, whose credits include the feature The Motel Life, brought a special affinity to the project: he grew up in Chicago playing hockey, the son of Soviet émigrés. He was captivated as a kid by the style of Fetisov and his teammates, so at odds with the more brutal technique prevalent in North America. "What they did on the ice was a miracle," Polsky recalls. "The artistry, the weaving, the skill level, the creativity…It was a revolution in sport."

The style emphasized—tellingly—the collective over the individual. "The beauty that came of their game was a purely communist idea," notes Polsky, who was a political science major—and hockey player—at Yale. "You serve your teammates, you serve your country—versus making more money and that sort of individual glory."

The Red Army Team. Courtesy of Slava Fetisov/Sony Pictures Classics

In the Soviet era, top talents like Fetisov were drafted into the military with the express purpose of playing for the Red Army club, which in turn fed the national team. "Basically the whole system was funded by the government," Polsky explains. The team's success was meant to score propaganda points: "To show the world the dominance of the Soviet Union, which meant the dominance of the [political] system, to spread the ideology throughout the world. That was the purpose."

Polsky traveled to Russia with the intent of interviewing former Red Army club players and especially Fetisov. But the captain proved an elusive quarry. "He was tough to get to," Polsky says. "I kept trying to get him and on [our] last day in Russia—the 10th day of the shoot—he called me and said, ‘Okay, fine, I'll do it. But I'll give you 15 minutes. That's all.'"

Fortunately for Polsky, those 15 minutes "turned into a five-hour interview. He really opened up... more so than he's opened up to any journalist."

Fetisov proved expansive on some topics—describing the privations of life in the Soviet Union and his early training under Anatoly Tarasov, an ingenious coach who made use of ballet, chess and tumbling.

But worthy of a defenseman, Fetisov deflected other questions as skillfully as a puck, especially when it came to addressing the Soviet team's one great defeat—the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Olympic Games, when the underdog Americans shocked the Soviets 4-3.

Polsky was less than a year old back then, but in the film he captures how Americans perceived the historic upset: as a triumph for democracy and a repudiation of Communist aggression, coming as it did on the heels of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The director uncovered video of Coach Herb Brooks speaking with President Jimmy Carter by phone right after the US win. "I think it just proves that our way of life is the proper way to continue on," Brooks assures the president.

"I almost couldn't believe that we had found that," Polsky says of the Brooks video. "Everyone [who hears Brooks' comment] kind of chuckles in their stomachs, like a dark laughter, that he actually said that."

For many Americans, the story of Soviet hockey ends there. But not for Polsky. "I found it amazing that that legacy of Soviet hockey—all it is is the ‘Miracle' in North America. No one really knows how dominant they were, what they were doing. It's sort of wiped out of history."

Filmmaker Gabe Polsky (right) and crew in Moscow. Photo: Silvia Zeitlinger; courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Polsky explores how the team regrouped after 1980. The training regimen became unrelenting under the harsh rule of Coach Viktor Tikhonov, who confined his players to a kind of hockey Gulag for most of the year. "Tikhonov was a dictator-like authoritarian," Polsky says. "The players had very little say and were under his thumb."

Fetisov and company became a superpower, demolishing the NHL's best in competitions. And the team avenged its loss at the 1980 Olympics by winning Gold at the 1984 and 1988 games.

By 1988 the Soviet Union was on its last legs—although that only became clear in retrospect. Short on Western currency, Soviet authorities essentially started auctioning their hockey talent to the NHL. Fetisov wanted to join the NHL's New Jersey Devils, but on his own terms—an uncompromising stance that put him on a collision course with the Kremlin. "He's a guy that doesn't like to be fucked with," Polsky maintains. "As soon as he really felt that the government was crossing the line with basically trying to sell [players] off to the United States and then take all of their money, that's when it just clicked in him where he just said, ‘You can't; you're not gonna fuck with me.'"

The clash with state authority transformed Fetisov from a national hero to a pariah. Ironically, the iconic Soviet team player came to embody a distinctly American archetype: the lone individual courageously standing against the system. "It was scary for him and his family, not knowing what would happen," Polsky says.

In the end Fetisov managed to get his way, his perseverance eventually rewarded with several Stanley Cup championships. Red Army has earned Polsky a nomination for the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Documentary Screenplay, alongside Finding Vivian Maier, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz and Last Days in Vietnam. And the film was honored as the opening night film at the Moscow Film Festival last June, an event that Polsky found nerve-wracking. "It was a 500-seat theater, it was full and I was so nervous," the filmmaker recalls. "If it didn't work there, I felt like it was a failure." He needn't have worried. "They gave me a standing ovation for 10 minutes. People were very emotional. It was really special. It was amazing."

But the recent sharp decline in US-Russian relations, following Russia's annexation of Crimea, have complicated plans for a wider release of Red Army in that country. "Now the situation's gotten so bad that I don't know what's going to happen, if the film's even going to get shown there," Polsky laments.

Red Army will play in US theaters, however, beginning January 23 in New York and Los Angeles through Sony Pictures Classics, before expanding to dozens of cities nationwide.

And Polsky believes Red Army may help American audiences better grasp the Russia of today under Vladimir Putin. After all, Putin's appeal internally rests largely on the promise of restoring Russia to its Soviet-era prestige. "I think when you understand the mentality and the history of these people—this is where Putin and all the people in the government, this is the country they grew up in. That's how they lived," Polsky says. "And if you have a sense of that history and understanding then you have a sense of who these people are, why they do what they do."

 

Matthew Carey is a writer-producer who has contributed to CNN, CNN.com and other outlets. He is currently developing the website nonfictionfilm.com.