Americans love inspirational sports stories. Think of the span of sports figures who’ve become part of American pop culture. Inspirational sports stories are their own type of film, a type still being made by major studios these days. These stories, though, tend to paint their opponents in broad strokes as the enemy. It becomes hard to picture what exists on the other side in more nuanced terms.
Red Army takes a look at one of the more notable “enemies” to an American sports league: the Soviet hockey team. In Gabe Polsky’s documentary, hockey is examined as a sport in the Soviet Union, with all of the cultural forces that impacted the sport and its players in the country.
The documentary is constructed in the standard mix of archival footage and talking head interviews, but the most prominent interview opens and closes the film, and provides a spine that helps distinguish the film. Slava Fetisov, who won two gold medals as a member of the Soviet hockey team in the years after the “Miracle on Ice” in the 1980 Olympics, is shown answering a text in one of the film’s first scenes, joking with Polsky that unlike Americans, he wasn’t raised to just sit around and do nothing. Fetisov continues to prod at Polsky throughout the film, challenging questions on their premises.
The film doesn’t need the jolt of energy, but Fetisov’s interview segments certainly don’t hurt. Hearing stories from Fetisov and others who were part of the Soviet hockey team known as the Red Army, it’s clear that the team was a remarkable force. The film traces the roots of Soviet dominance in the sport to development in military-styled training camps, as well as the influence of coach Anatoly Tarasov, who encouraged the players to study ballet and chess. The players also discuss the issues they faced when they joined teams in North America, where they found the play to be more brutish and less centered around the idea of teamwork.
The film is also not shy about exploring the downsides of Soviet hockey. Their loss at the Olympics in 1980 resulted in grueling workouts that separated the players from their families for months. Later, the country demanded huge percentages of their players’ contracts if they wanted to join the NHL, with no rhyme or reason to who they actually let through the proverbial border. But it’s clear that in spite of their issues, at least some of the former players, like Fetisov, still have some sense of nostalgia about those days.
At a brisk 85 minutes, Red Army moves with as much grace as the Soviet hockey players moved on the ice. The film moves beyond any one game, even one as big as the “Miracle on Ice,” in exploration of a grander story. It’s a superior example of a sports documentary, and one of the stronger documentaries to hit screens in recent memory.