The film opens with Viacheslav Fetisov in a crisp suit, taking a phone call. An exasperated director asks questions, while "Slava" stares at his phone, ignoring the interruption. It's as if a czar has been interrupted mid-bite at his feast. We stare at the powerful face of this man as he's clearly dealing with bigger things than, say, participating in this documentary we're all there to watch.
Rather than feeling like he's done something rude, we are made to feel like interlopers. Such is the power of this man, the persuasion in those eyes that are intimately connected with the bureaucracy of the new Russia. The self-confidence is, in a word, intoxicating.
As Slava continues his phone call, a truly ridiculous list of his accomplishments comes up on screen - awards, medals trophies. He's an Olympian, a Stanley Cup winner, and recipient of the highest civilian and military honours in his nation.
What Fetisov also provides is unique insight into the later period of the Soviet system, an insider's guide from the late 1970's through to the collapse during the early 90s of a political and sporting system that dominated the world. Through his recollections, we get what may be the most definitive portrait of Soviet hockey on film.
We certainly get the most entertaining portrait.
Above all, Red Army is a blast, one of the most unabashedly entertaining documentaries I've seen in some time. It also passes a big test for me, working for those obsessed with the game as much as those that don't give a flying Finn about the battle of the blades.
This is at its heart the story of teammates, a group of young players that became brothers as they conquered the world of international sport. There's highs and lows, political machinations, confrontations with the military elite, and enough Cold War shenanigans to make you think it's a plot of a John le Carée novel.
Director Gary Polsky throughout feels like an unwilling participant, the interviews acting as if Fetisov is somehow coercing his interrogator into his world, shifting the power balance. Yet there's a twinkle in Slava's eye, a sense more that he's cutting through the bullshit rather than being belligerent. Either way, it's one of the more entertaining talking head interviews in some time, one that even Morris' Interotron would not likely have made more profound.
From a sporting perspective there's some astonishing footage at play. I may be an ideal candidate for this film on some level - growing up in Toronto, I was born a half decade after the Maple Leafs last won the cup. Decades of losing have made me familiar with the game, but no fan. Thus, while I get the ebb and flow of the game, its main participants and iconic stars, much of this story was new to me.
To see the Soviets play in context is downright thrilling. With training borrowed from the Bolshoi, their balletic moves on ice were a thing to watch, and clearly shattered the establishment when they invaded. I wasn't paying as much attention to the fears and Xenophobia from the mid-80s (evidenced by a famous clip involving the blowhard Don Cherry, hockey commentator for louts and vagabonds), but you can sense how scary it would have been for the more thuggish players to confront such grace and skill coming towards them from behind the net.
Much like the players it documents, the film effortlessly skates back and forth between historical footage, contemporary interviews, and historical contextualization, all told with a humour and lightness that's very much appreciated. Yes, this is an extremely informative doc, but you never feel pandered to during its pedagogical pursuits. There's an elegance and grace to the filmmaking that mirrors the plays it documents.
With credits for Werner Herzog (for whom Polsky helped produce The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans) and Jerry Weintraub (the man who gave us Karate Kid), there's a certain star power behind the scenes as well that may get this film out to the audience it deserves.
A sports doc for people who don't give a damn about sports, and hockey porn for those obsessed with the elegance of skates, sticks and brawling, Red Army has it all. With bigger-than-life characters, real personal and political drama, and and important and compelling narrative, this is one of the most relevant and entertaining docs in years, gracefully weaving its way through its complicated story, avoiding ever being plowed into the boards.
Quite simply, Red Army is fabulous, one of the most fun and fascinating films of the year.