‘Red Army’ Review: In Soviet Russia, Hockey Plays You — With Bittersweet Consequences

Turns out hockey was right up there with nukes and the space race as a key factor in the Cold War

Weapons of planetary destruction, a breakneck race into the cosmos, hockey: These were the battlegrounds of the Cold War. Whacking a rubber disk around a rink with a big stick — provided you could do it at the world-class level and win — was a salute to the moral certainty that your country had not only discovered and realized the very best way to live, but also had reached the absolute pinnacle of integrity and fairness.

Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, a hockey icon who began competing in international matches at age 16, didn’t mind being a pawn for the Soviet Union’s pro-Communism propaganda until his fortunes turned, and the national hero suddenly found himself physically endangered and defamed as a traitor. Gabe Polsky’s brisk and ambitious “Red Army” surveys Fetisov’s careers as an athlete and a politician in an engagingly wide-ranging look at extreme coaching styles, the tolls of government intimidation, sports as a (not always negative) tool of nationalism and the calamitous transition from the USSR to Putin’s Russia.

For all their innate interest, Fetisov’s tales of KGB spies and brutally relentless training (“there were players who urinated blood”) fit rather neatly into American narratives of life under Leninism. But Polsky, heard but not seen in the film, coaxes gruff but revealing interviews from the no-nonsense, 50-something Fetisov, who’s eager to finally tell his story – but only on his terms. “I’m busy now,” he snaps in an early scene, glaring at his phone while the cameras continue filming. “Gabe, [that’s] not a proper question,” he sighs later to an admittedly silly inquiry.

“Red Army” dutifully chronicles the highlights of Fetisov’s two decades as a professional player, first in the USSR’s legendary Red Army team, and later for the NHL teams in New Jersey and Detroit. The wonderful archival material includes a dazed Wayne Gretzsky explaining what it’s like playing against the Red Army: “You just can’t compete! It’s too difficult!”

RedArmyBut the film always returns to its examination of what hockey means — or rather, is made to mean — as a political instrument. “Hockey proved the Soviet system was the best system,” a talking head explains. And lest you think Polsky is playing up Soviet kitsch, “Red Army” later features an American sports announcer similarly proclaiming that a U.S. win proves “our way of life is the proper way to continue on.”

Among the most fascinating chapters of Fetisov’s career is his difficult relationship with Red Army coach Viktor Tikhonov, who demanded that his players live in a kind of hockey camp for 11 months out of the year, instead of with their families, to minimize distractions. Tikhonov’s measures were so extreme that the athletes in his program frequently discussed if they should throw the next game so that they could be released from the team.

The former coach, a feted figure in his own right, refused to be interviewed, and the absence of his point of view (or those of his defenders) comprises a significant flaw in the film’s narrative, especially since it could be argued that it was Tikhonov’s slave-driving that brought back so many trophies to Moscow.

“Red Army” could also use some more nuance in its repetitive denigrations of Soviet collectivism, a political philosophy that, when applied to hockey strategy, Fetisov credits for his victories. The hockey legend dismisses the individualistic style of playing he encountered as a New Jersey Devil, ironically using the same language that Americans routinely use to criticize Marxist cultures.

Polsky also frustratingly glosses over Fetisov’s second life as a Russian politician appointed by Vladimir Putin to rebuild the sport in the newly capitalistic republic. But that’s just another way of saying that what seems missing from the documentary is more of it. With a contagious (at least until the lights came up) enthusiasm for ice-skaters who give each other nosebleeds, “Red Army” is a thoughtful and cheer-worthy examination of how sports can shape cultures, redraw borders and change history.