Nobody under 40 can remember the Cold War craziness that turned all aspects of life in the United States and the Soviet Union into competitions.
Forget the nuclear arms race: For four decades, both aimed to prove the capitalist or communist ways of life were best by excelling in cars, capsules for space flights, even classical music. The most obvious battlegrounds were Olympic Games, including the famous 1980 hockey match at Lake Placid, N.Y.
There the young U.S. team took the gold medal from the heavily favored Soviets, beating them 4-3 in the penultimate game. We saw the American side of things in the 2004 Disney feature “Miracle.” Now we get the Russian view in “Red Army.”
This documentary takes its name from the fact that all those players officially joined the Red Army Club, so they could be considered “amateurs” while the government subsidized their training. They also trained like an army, especially after that startling defeat: They spent 11 months of the year living away from their families at private camps, performing grueling exercises and skating endlessly through drills.
Old-timers will remember that the Soviet sports system identified talented kids in elementary school and then shaped them to be gymnasts or basketball players with hardly any private lives or personal choices. Viacheslav Fetisov was one of them. Luckily, he idolized hockey players as a boy, had extraordinary skills and may have been the greatest defenseman in hockey history.
Fetisov serves as the main spokesperson for the documentary written, produced and directed by Gabe Polsky. Fetisov sometimes seems to tease or dismiss Polsky, but he speaks honestly about the firing of beloved coach Anatoly Tarasov after the 1980 humiliation and the hiring of dictatorial Viktor Tikhonov. (The players hated him, but they won Olympic gold in 1984 and 1988.)
Polsky was 11 months old when the U.S. pulled off the “Miracle on Ice,” so he learned everything in the film second-hand. That gives him a fresh take on the material, and he revisits the Cold War segment with a rueful, “what-a-mess” view.
Though other players remain mum or overly diplomatic about their Soviet playing days, he manages to get Fetisov to be frank most of the time. (If you see the film, you’ll learn why he’s not frank all the time.)
The Russian players’ lives took surprising turns over the years, and I won’t give them away here. They were indisputably the greatest hockey unit ever in their prime; Fetisov and three teammates made the starting six of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Centennial All-Star Team. (Wayne Gretzky was the lone North American.)
Polsky’s point seems to be that the Soviet system was the best at producing hockey players, whatever the cost to their personal lives. Yet their economic system collapsed, and the empire dissolved. They finally won the Olympic race – but ultimately, did that matter?
A documentary about the greatest hockey team of all time, which morphed from Olympic losers in 1980 to unstoppable champions.
B+ STARS: Viacheslav Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Vladislav Tretiak.
WRITER-DIRECTOR: Gabe Polsky.
RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes.
RATING: PG (thematic material and language).