Gabe Polsky’s documentary Red Army is being sold as the other side of the story to the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s 1980 victory in Lake Placid, New York, explaining how a moment of hope and inspiration dubbed the “Miracle On Ice” in the United States was seen very differently by the men with CCCP on their jerseys. But the 1980 Olympics only takes up a fraction of Red Army’s run-time—which is as it should be. For one thing, Polsky was born in 1979, and doesn’t have the firsthand memories of the Lake Placid games that would make him more inclined to treat that moment in American history as sacrosanct. Plus, one of Red Army’s main points is that the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and all that was just a political hype-job, on both the American and Russian sides. Defining the Soviet hockey team by one bad game feeds a myth that only serves the powerful.
Or at least that’s the point of view of Red Army’s star, Slava Fetisov, who led the Soviets to two gold medals post-1980, then went on to a distinguished NHL career. For the most part, Polsky’s documentary is rigidly bound to the archival-clips-and-talking-heads model, with wall-to-wall music and unnecessarily dramatic camera push-ins during the interviews. But Polsky—best known before Red Army for the indie drama The Motel Life—bends convention a little when it comes to Fetisov, keeping in the all-star defenseman’s moments of crankiness and defiance. In one of the film’s first scenes, Fetisov keeps Polsky waiting while he answers a text, then jokes that unlike Americans, he wasn’t raised to sit around and do nothing. Throughout the film, Fetisov challenges the premise of Polsky’s questions, demanding the director stop framing his story as the struggle of an individual against a totalitarian collective.
Fetisov’s orneriness energizes Red Army, although in fairness to Polsky (and his editors), the movie’s hockey footage alone is plenty thrilling. If nothing else, this film makes the case that the Cold War—however Fetisov or Polsky respectively choose to define it—robbed American sports fans of the chance to watch and appreciate one of the greatest collections of athletes ever assembled. Red Army traces the origins of Soviet hockey dominance, which was rooted both in the Stalinist-era development of military-style training camps and the influence of jovial, innovative coach Anatoly Tarasov, who encouraged his players to study ballet and chess. Later, when the Soviet players either defected or were allowed to leave, they had a hard time adjusting to the more brutish, less artful North American style of play. Fetisov eventually won two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, but only after he was reunited with Russians raised on the team-centered system of strategic skating and passing.
That’s the central dilemma Polsky explores: this tension between the ideal of teamwork and the nightmare of state control. Red Army doesn’t shy away from the downside of Soviet hockey. The players talk about the grueling workouts after the loss in Lake Placid—which separated them from their families for months and left them “pissing blood”—and most of them are still bitter about the way their country handled their transition to the NHL, by demanding huge percentages of their contracts and capriciously deciding who could and couldn’t leave. But Fetisov also refuses to demonize Soviet officials whom he sees as caught up in the machinery of “the system,” just like everyone else. And Fetisov also believes his fellow countrymen lost something vital when they lost the patriotic pride of the Soviet era. Anyone from America who still feels a tingle watching the 1980 Olympic hockey upset should know exactly what Fetisov means.