American film audiences and sports fans know all about the “Miracle on Ice,” the 1980 Winter Olympics where the US hockey team took down the nefarious Soviet hockey team on their way to gold in a moment of pure underdog delight. Between Al Michaels ubiquitous logline and Disney making sure the narrative stuck a certain way with 2004’s Miracle, that game is seen primarily from one side in mainstream culture.
But what of the Russians? There’s a whole other side of the story there that’s always begged for attention. Did you know on IMDB that the players for the Soviet team in Miracle are all just credited as “Team USSR”? Viktor Tikhonov, an embattled man, hated by his teams, loved by his government, and an altogether hard Soviet coach, has no dialogue in Miracle. They’ve been made out to be Ivan Dragos as bait for two-sided Cold War simplicity. The question remains: Who were these guys? Red Army shoots to answer.
Red Army’s a slap shot snapshot. A quick and punchy glimpse into Russia’s dynasty of hockey legends, this is a doc that goes deep, peeling back the Iron Curtain for fast, fascinating, and even funny insight into the collective nature of athleticism, co-opted in the name of country and commerce. Red Army humanizes an often-thought impenetrable and even fascist team.
Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov was on that 1980 team. He’s basically the focus of Red Army and the gateway to a once very secretive and propagandistic team, Central Sports Army Club Moscow, “The Red Army Club” in the West. It started as a military-funded group, a national cause, and an ideological government project with rah-rah commercialism. It became a platform, a place for songs and Stalinist rhetoric and, to a lesser extent, diatribes on masculinity (Putin would probably hate this film). Fetisov, along with a bevy of talking (or not talking) heads and stock footage, gets checked.
Fetisov chronicles the ups and downs of his lifelong commitment to Russia and its fierce hockey team. He played since he was eight and was at the “miracle,” which was only the beginning for him. Russia kept a crippling vise on the team despite startling changes in the state. Fetisov extols the traumas that hockey took on him and every player’s live as it became a balancing act of total physical commitment and appeasing shifting bureaucracies. Fetisov had to transition to the National Hockey League. To him, it is about national pride, sure, but more importantly, it was about hockey and being the toughest damned player he could be. It was for everyone that ever played in Russia. This is pretty much the significant narrative of hockey in Russia over the last 40 years. As you see the changing ideologies behind the game, you realize how much of a periphery thing it was: players gonna play.
In a telling opening bit, Gabe Polsky, the director, is asking questions of Fetisov, who’s on his phone. While the director waits, the disinterested former defenseman becomes surrounded by text for every award he’s ever received; from his Olympic gold to his Detroit Red Wings Stanley cup to his Order of Lenin, it just takes up the entire frame.
Polsky asks again for Fetisov’s attention, and the stone-faced Russian smirks and gives the finger.
Nice. Right there, it’s like the entire spirit of the stoic and surly Russian wrapped into a single finger. Brazen, withdrawn, capable of frustrating you. Admittedly, it feels like a high-end 30 for 30 project, slamming lots together. One wishes Polsky could get more out of the cagey players he meets (with the exception of Fetisov, everyone’s tight-lipped; former coach Viktor Tikhonov declined to participate). But then that wouldn’t be part of the Russian character he aims to get at, would it?