Ice Cold War: Red Army (B+)

Possibly the most telling revelation in the hockey (and so much more than hockey) documentary Red Army?

If it seemed like the almost-but-never-quite-a-war between the Soviet Union and the United States was actually being fought on the ice, with stick-wielding skaters as soldiers, it’s because – at least for the Soviets – it essentially was, and the skaters essentially were.

Director Gabe Polsky – in a fun, graphically arresting documentary – recounts the saga of the Центральный Спортивный Клуб Армии, known colloquially as the Red Army Club. This examination of the Soviet sporting mindset is filtered mostly through the recollections of Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, a soldier (and yes, he was a drafted soldier, as were all the members of his team) who was the undisputed hockey star of the Soviet Union from five years before the Miracle on Ice until five years after it, and struggled mightily with higher ups in the Soviet military (including his coach, installed by the KGB) before being allowed to play in the NHL without any of his contract being sent back to the USSR.

This is the story, then, of the all-too-familiar (Miracle, Rocky IV, etc) American underdog complex of 1980s sports, but told told from the perspective of Ivan Drago.

It’s a fun twist, and revealing in its own disarming way.

The main point is this: to demythologize our deeply-embedded notion of Soviet athletes as monosyllabic steroidal hunks of learned doctrine. This mission is helped along immensely by Fetisov, one of the more vivid interview subjects a “talking heads” style film like this could hope for. Slava is charming, well-spoken, and far enough removed from both his highs and lows to add a wry, ironic perspective to most of the proceedings (though notably, watching the Miracle on Ice game still dims the twinkle in his eye). He’s also ornery and stubborn – Polsky goes out of his way to show us that his subject is not a trained monkey reciting the filmmaker’s hoped-for script. As soon as a distracted Slava raises a middle finger to an inquiring Polsky within the film’s opening sequence, we are reassured in knowing that what we’re getting isn’t Polsky speaking through Slava – Polsky would have an easier time blowing out a forest fire – but Slava unfiltered.

It’s a neat trick – it lends an air of authenticity, important when dealing with a subject like the Cold War, which still has people who were on the “front line” tight-lipped to this day – but it is a bit cute. Polsky uses a similar device to defang the KGB. The seasoned KGB spook he’s interviewing – the guy who went along with the team to places like Canada to ensure none of them would defect – is occasionally interrupted by what appears to be his adorable Russian granddaughter, who will hop in the frame and remind the audience of a few things: that modern little girls in Russia don’t know what the KGB is, that many years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, and that even KGB agents grow into adorable old men who eat ice cream with their granddaughters. That KGB agent isn’t just there to recite his interpretation of facts; he lends atmosphere, context, and more than a little bit of metatextual hindsight.

So yes, Polsky’s documentary may be presented in the fairly straight-forward talking heads format, with no narration or personal editorializing, but the director’s guiding hand is obvious in these peaks behind the curtain. He has an innate narrative sense. Look at how he contrasts the Red Army coaches: he presents the jolly, red-nosed eccentric Anatoli Tarasov as a mix between a Soviet Santa Claus and Yoda, and really does a number on his KGB-installed replacement Viktor Tikhonov, who may as well be hockey’s Gran Moff Tarkin.

I’m sure there’s evidence out there that would complicate both of these readings, but Polsky keeps it simple so that – when Slava, feeling exploited and missused by Tikhonov, takes a stand and leaves the Red Army and is unofficially banned from pretty much every hockey institution – a narrative circle is closed and an immense feeling of catharsis is triggered when the padowan returns to his disgraced, hobbled master, Tarasov, for the training that will keep him in shape for his imminent victory lap in America. It’s poetic. It’s perfect.

It would be too perfect if the story ended here, with Fetisov freed to earn the big capitalist dollars in the good ol’ USA and the Soviet Union whimpering red-faced and defeated. Instead, the documentary truly takes off in its third act as it faces the complicated reality for Russian superstars in an America that still resented them. In many ways, American teammates, coaches, and fans were as cruel as the Soviets had been to the Fetisovs and their ilk; they had no way of knowing what a ballsy move Fetisov had made in essentially telling Soviet higher-ups to shove it and using his immense celebrity to make an unprecedented move. He was just Ivan Drago in ice skates, the face of the red Army hockey team in a New Jersey Devils jersey. The situation uses the sports underdog complex we so love to further humanize the Russians while also speaking, as so much of this doc does, to the sociopolitical.

Vindication for Slava and many of his teammates, now cast-offs, came when they were assembled by Scotty Bowman on the Detroit Wed Wings and allowed to replicate thier nearly telepathic ice ballet by a coach who appreciated rather than resented the Russian system of play. The documentary doesn’t dote on it, but many of the hockey star’s late-career and post-career achievements color our ultimate understanding of a figure like Fetisov. He could have been an exile from his homeland, but when he won the Stanley Cup, he fought to bring it to Russia. This tugs at the heartstrings. But… During many of his interviews, he wears a Sochi Olympics shirt, and we come to find out that, during filming, he is actually working under Putin to help plan the now divisive 22nd Winter Games. He and many of his teammates, after fighting with resolve to part ways with the Red Army, have returned to offer a helping hand. Having told us this, Polsky leaves us without commenting too much on the current regime. Are we proud of these Red Army stars for returning to their homeland to act as benevolent Tarasovs for a new generation of Russian sports fans? Or are we dissapointed that they have become a new generation of Tikhonovs, enforcing the doctrine of an increasingly dark regime. For once, Polsky keeps out of the way and lets us demythologize this conundrum on our own.