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Red Army | reviews, news & interviews

Red Army

Red Army

Outstanding documentary on ice hockey and politics charts changing mood of Russia

The legendary ice hockey 'Russian Five', Vyacheslav Fetisov second from right

There’s a screen quotation late in this remarkable documentary that reads, “An outstanding athlete cannot belong totally to himself.” The words are those of Soviet ice hockey trainer Anatoly Tarasov, who's one of the presences behind this story of the sport seen through the eyes and experience of the legendary defender Vyacheslav (Slava) Fetisov. But director Gabe Polsky has made a broader film, one which touches on the uncertain journey Russia has undergone over the last three decades.

Red Army makes clear how, in a world in which sport was an extension of the superpower struggle, Fetisov and his fellow Soviet team players belonged to the state. They trained in sports camps that imposed virtual isolation from family for 11 months a year; the figure of Viktor Tikhonov, the national coach who succeeded Tarasov, comes across as practically sadistic. When they played international fixtures, KGB surveillance was constant. Finally, as perestroika gathered impetus, these national stars departed for the lucrative professional heights of the NHL: Fetisov was the first to make that move on his own terms, overcoming resistance that went up to the highest levels of the Soviet hierarchy.       

Ice hockey in the Soviet school became close to an art form

Polsky comes from an émigré family and tries to elucidate the details of the Soviet era in a way accessible to the general viewer. The fact that he also played ice hockey to university level enables him to provide some very nice elucidation of the sport. The differences between the playing styles of the opposing sides were pronounced: ice hockey in the Soviet school became close to an art form, its training infused with disciplines absorbed from fields as varied as chess (Soviet grandmaster Anatoly Karpov remembers shared training forums) and classical ballet. It created a style very different from its North American counterpart, over which it repeatedly triumphed.

The director gained access to Fetisov and the world of the Red Army team – known as such because the players were in the employment of the Ministry of Defence – through a connection to its goalie. He avoids the screen himself completely; we hear only his occasional sotto-voce promptings and background questions. And part of the interest in watching Red Army is in gauging the fluctuating relationship between Polsky and his chief subject: Fetisov can be distinctly laconic, appearing to give up his time and memories rather reluctantly.

The director brings this apparently grudging engagement to the heart of the film, leaving the pauses and hiatuses to speak for themselves. This apparently dawdling, informal approach colours other elements: when Polsky interviewed Felix Nechepure, a retired KGB officer who had been a minder accompanying sportsmen overseas, he was in the company of his young granddaughter, who at one point chips in to interrupt her grandfather.

It’s a funny, scene-stealing moment, all the more unexpected for the fact that it didn’t end up on the cutting-room floor. There’s another telling encounter with Alexei Kasatonov, another of the famous “Russian Five” of top players (main picture): team-mates in the Soviet side – Fetisov describes the two as being as close as brothers – they would later play together again in the 1990s in the NHL. But at a crucial point in Fetisov’s bid to play abroad, when some fellow players came out in support, Kasatonov stayed silent. And he stayed silent when Polsky asked him about that incident, deflecting the question as the camera panned slowly to a close-up of his face, which revealed more than any words could.

Red Army leaves us with questions. When Fetisov speaks about the death in 1985 of his younger brother in a car accident – Fetisov was driving – his engagement is total and moving. So we wonder about his diffidence generally, whether it’s from character, or because he’s repeating stories he’s told many times before, or if he's now influenced by different circumstances. When his professional career ended, Fetisov served from 2002 to 2008 as Minister of Sport at the invitation of Vladimir Putin, and was a key figure behind last year’s Sochi Winter Olympics. Polsky must have been making the film in 2013, and the question remains whether any of those involved in Red Army would offer such cooperation if the film was being made today. Does Fetisov (pictured above) "belong" to himself now – or to the new regime? 

As well as the players, Polsky brings together an engaging set of interviewees who give context on both the sporting details and political moments. With Werner Herzog onboard as an executive producer, Red Army looks excellent, combining the sporting archive we’d expect with home movies (black and white footage of Fetisov at home with trainer Tarasov stands out). A score by Christophe Beck and Leo Birenberg fluctuates between thriller elements in the sporting dramas of the first half, and a nostalgic tone as the action moves into the 1990s. It’s a match-winning package.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Red Army


Finally, as perestroika gathered impetus, these national stars would depart for the lucrative professional heights of the NHL


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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