By Bruce Berglund for The Conversation
Gabe Polsky’s documentary Red Army opens with the film’s main subject – former NHL and Soviet hockey great Viacheslav (Slava) Fetisov – giving the finger to Polsky while checking his phone. At the film’s close, Fetisov has the phone pressed to his ear as Polsky coaxes him to cooperate.
“California boy,” Fetisov chuckles. Off-camera, Polsky feebly corrects him: “Chicago.”
Before retiring in 1998, Slava Fetisov played 23 seasons of Soviet League, NHL and international hockey. He won two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals, and he’s a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In recounting a playing career that included stints with Moscow’s Red Army club, the Soviet national team and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings, Fetisov is engaging and, at times, humorous. But he’s also dismissive, obscurant and, ultimately, unreliable. As we see in the opening and closing scenes, Fetisov is still able to skate circles around an opponent – even a filmmaker.
Gaps in the narrative
To be sure, Red Army is an entertaining film. Polsky – a former hockey player himself – had parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US, and the director brings a fan’s enthusiasm to the subject. But he also shows that hockey was about more than entertainment for the Soviets. Success on the rink was a way of demonstrating the superiority of their political system.
With archival film and photographs, the documentary shows us the foundations of Soviet hockey: children skating on outdoor rinks in the 1960s and legendary coach Anatoli Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey, leading young players through drills. Tarasov borrowed his training methods from the ballet studio and his on-ice strategy from chess masters. Players were able to move freely and improvise during the game, but within a team-focused structure – an expression of the Soviet ideal. The strategy worked. Under Tarasov’s leadership, the Soviet team dominated international competitions in the 1960s and 1970s, winning 12 world championships and four Olympic gold medals.
Some fans will be disappointed that the film skips over these decades. There’s no mention of the 1972 Summit Series between the Soviets and Canadians, nor the Red Army team’s celebrated games with the Montreal Canadians and Philadelphia Flyers in 1975 and 1976. Instead, the film jumps from the early years of Soviet hockey to Slava Fetisov’s first appearance in the Olympics at Lake Placid in 1980.
The US hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union during these Olympics – the “Miracle on Ice” – is an iconic moment in American sports history. Red Army attempts to present the other side of the story, but falls short. Lingering shots of a silent Fetisov – his expression varying from pensive to irritated – are interspersed with rapid clips from the original broadcast. The editing is jarring (why the tight zoom on Al Michaels’ chin?). It’s also wrong. The montage shows Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak pulled from the ice at the incorrect point in the game, and we see Mark Johnson (number 10) – rather than Mike Eruzione – scoring the U.S. team’s fourth goal, the eventual game-winner.
A hockey film that mishandles the Miracle on Ice is like a baseball film botching Bobby Thompson’s Shot Heard Round the World. It’s hard to trust a sports documentary that messes up the big moments.
Mercurial Fetisov offers a skewed point of view
In the wake of the second-place finish at Lake Placid, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov re-built the squad around Fetisov and other younger players. If there’s a villain in Red Army, it’s Tikhonov. Fetisov casts his former coach as a KGB stooge who owed his job to friends in high places. Polsky buys it. Clips of Tikhonov yelling at his players on the bench are set to a laugh track. Scenes of the coach directing his players in the training room alternate with black-and-white footage of Russian circus bears.
Without question, Tikhonov was a rigid taskmaster hated by many players. But he also led his teams to eight world championships and three Olympic gold medals (including one as coach of the post-Soviet Unified Team, which did not include Fetisov). To present him as a buffoon is a stretch.
Whether due to (or in spite of) Tihkonov’s coaching methods, the Soviet team of the 1980s and early 1990s dominated on the world stage. The core of the team was a unit of three forwards – Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov – and two defensemen, Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov. Their success happened during the stagnation of the late Brezhnev years and the launch of perestroika and glasnost under Gorbachev. As the Soviet state opened to the West, Fetisov and other players sought to move to the NHL. Publicly, Tikhonov and Soviet authorities said the players were free to leave; privately, they pressured them to stay.
The heart of the film is set in these final years of the Soviet team, when the lure of NHL riches, the inflexibility of the Soviet system, and loyalty to homeland tore Fetisov and his teammates apart. Kasatonov and Krutov were interviewed for the film; Larionov and Makarov were not. Their absence skews the story (you can hear their version of events in a 2004 documentary for Swedish TV), leaving Fetisov free to tell his version of the team’s demise and his break from Tikhonov.
Yet questions from Polsky are often deflected. When Polsky asks about the issues underlying the Cold War, Fetisov dismisses the whole topic: “That’s bullshit.” End of discussion. Earlier in the film, Polsky asks why Fetisov didn’t defect while traveling abroad. “I’m happy,” he answers with a smile. Polsky doesn’t point out – or ask about – the fact that hockey players had access to apartments, cars, and other perks unavailable to most Soviet citizens.
There are few hard questions for Fetisov. Near the end of the film, he speaks of how contemporary Russian hockey has lost its soul. Polsky clumsily asks if he wants the Soviet Union back.
“Gabe, it’s not a proper question,” he replies.
This could be a revealing moment, not only for Fetisov but also for how Russians see their Soviet past; it could offer insight into why people like Fetisov support Vladimir Putin. But the proper question – the pointed, informed question – doesn’t come.
The Soviet hockey teams were a remarkable dynasty. And as the film shows, these teams offer a view of the broader history of the Soviet Union during its years of decline. Unfortunately, the film is less about Soviet hockey than about Slava Fetisov – or, more accurately, about Fetisov, as told by Fetisov. In publicity interviews for the film, Gabe Polsky admitted that the hockey legend finally agreed to his requests for an interview only on the last day of shooting in Moscow. It’s too bad. This could have been a richer and more balanced film if Fetisov had been too busy to return Polsky’s call.