' ' Cinema Romantico: Red Army

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Red Army

The vaunted Soviet Union hockey teams of the 70's and 80's were funded and maintained by the Central Moscow Army - or, the "Red Army - and, as such, their considerable skill and staggering won-loss record became a mouthpiece for an entire nation, for a way of life, for communism. It's seems so simple to view it in those terms, of course, to view it as legendary American hockey coach Herb Brooks, proprietor of The Miracle On Ice, viewed it, seen in a quick snippet during Gabe Polsky's film, speaking by phone to Jimmy Carter when he proclaimed their astounding victory over the Soviets as a referendum on their way of life. ('merica, bitches.) Yet, what "Red Army", a swift-moving but all-encompassing documentary so ably chronicles, is just how much that Soviet hockey team really did come to symbolize the country it represented; its strengths, its weaknesses, its downfall.

Polsky chooses to make legendary Soviet defenseman Slava Fetisov our foremost guide through this cruel, joyless, still occasionally joyful world. He was a remarkable player on the ice and an almost gleefully taciturn man off of it. The film's opening shot is him essentially hushing the director with a wag of his finger, communicating that he'll answer when he's good and ready. And when he does answer, then and throughout, he is blunt, as are all his former teammates. "Why do you keep asking the same question?" one asks, irritated, hardly even looking at the camera. When a fallout between Fetisov and is best friend, Alexei Kasatonov, is addressed, the best friend refuses to recount the facts, simply stating "It's a long story" and "Now is not the time." One (an American?) might be tempted to query, if not now, when? But that's his business. He knows what he knows, why do you need to know? Still, the glistening tears in his eyes say it all.

The turning point of the Soviet hockey era, "Red Army" reckons, was the coaching switch from Anatoli Tarasov to Viktor Tikhonov. The former was an incredible innovator who developed a style of play that focused on, in the film's words, "the collective". It quietly re-inforced Soviet nationalistic principles even as it allowed for a fluid, fast-moving game that was beautiful to watch and nigh impossible to beat. But if Tarasov's style emblematically effused the good of Communism then his successor Tikhonov's dictatorial style emblematically effused its bad. He was cruel and calculating, locking his players away for months at a time, not even letting one go home to bid farewell to his dying dad. (Tikhonov declined to be interviewed for the film and of course he did. What would he have said anyway? Generic boilerplate that illuminated nothing, I'll bet.)

Even as the Red Army continued to win Gold Medals and resoundingly beat NHL stars, the entire system was beginning to crumble, mirroring the nation it represented, morphing into an ice rink version of perestroika. Fetisov and his colleagues wanted the chance to play abroad in the National Hockey League, to earn what they were worth, to express the idea that they had already satisfied everyone's needs with their play for a decade-plus and that it was time to stand up to the system and get theirs.

The last stanza of the film features Fetisov and his countrymen finding their way to North America and discovering not simply a different world but a different game. It was rougher and uglier and more individualistic. They struggled to fit in. They became pariahs to people who saw Russian and immediately assumed "Red". And it's simply an incredible juxtaposition. The society that stifled individual expression allowed for an expression of #sport so pure and beautiful that it will likely never be replicated. But, of course, the society that stifled individual expression turned men into tyrants and the men below those tyrants into servants. Again, that's the film's words, "servants." "Servants," it is stated, "of the puck." The man with the puck is the servant of the other skaters.

Alas, "Red Army's" conclusion is strange to the point of nearly upending all the speaks-for-itself complexity of the preceding eighty minutes as it assumes an oddly optimistic view of modern day Russia. Fetisov, we learn, has become Minister of Sport at the behest of Vladimir Putin, and Fetisov makes mention of the Sochi Olympics as a victory without mention of, say, anything that went into attaining that victory or what the victory's aftermath has wrought. It's as if this same person for whom we have developed such affection in the name of fighting back against the tyrannical Tikhonov has essentially transformed into a version of his own worst enemy, looking the other way while his nation grows restless. And rather than pressing him on these issues, Polsky caps the film with an awe-inspiringly exasperating scene of self-indulgence in which he cracks an off camera joke, a coda that functions as a tragically comic Potemkin Village.

The hockey played by the Red Army was glorious, of that we can be sure, but it didn't boost a country's pride so much as it offered temporary relief from a country's shortcomings, a distraction from its wiles. The end of "Red Army" falls into the same trap, unwittingly proving its whole point.


Shane Slater said...

Great review, Nick. I really enjoyed this doc at NYFF, but you do bring up some valid concerns.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, Shane. I did really like it. And I was completely with it all the way until, what, the last five, ten minutes or so. And that joke right at the very end in particular really left a bad taste in my mouth. Like it was cheapening all the important stuff that came before.