Watching the Soviet hockey team play was a thing of beauty. The footage used in Gabe Polsky’s new documentary, “Red Army,” is proof enough that they were poets on skates, with a style of play so fluid, gorgeously creative, and tough to defend it was no wonder they scared opponents. There was something almost inhuman and fantastical about that team. In movie terms, the former Soviet Union’s many decades of international hockey dominance was so great it would be like combining the box office success of Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and George Lucas with the creative talent and critical adoration of (fittingly) Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky.
For this writer, listening to my Uncle describe playing against them was akin to a grand fairy tale. “When we played the Soviets [before the 1980 Olympics began] and lost 10-3 it wasn’t that close. We were in awe of them and were spectators that night,” Rob McClanahan described in a recent email conversation. Growing up in a strong hockey family in Minnesota, in which my father’s brother was a part of the “Miracle on Ice“ U.S. team, I’ve heard the legends of this almighty squad countless times and have seen every game of the 1980 Olympics on worn down VHS tapes, many times over.
People still talk proudly about this game and the U.S. team’s eventual gold medal win (in which Rob scored the game-winning goal against Finland). ESPN declared the Miracle on Ice as the top sports headline moment and game in its then 25-year existence. Sports Illustrated voted it sport’s greatest moment of the 20th century. There was even the movie version directed by Gavin O’Connor in 2004 of this monumental upset, “Miracle,” with Kurt Russell playing legendary coach Herb Brooks (in a great, non-Oscar baity turn where he even nailed the regional accent with nary a hint of “Fargo”-esque fun-poking). Uncle Rob was played by the young actor Nathan West. I never imagined my passion for hockey and cinema would ever converge, but there I was in a theater during my college years watching a guy play a person I grew up around, spent holidays with, and always idolized (holding an Olympic gold medal in your hands will do that to an impressionable, hockey-obsessed kid). It was surreal to say the least, and I was especially glad the movie, with its minor flaws and at times cheesy sentimentality, did the sport justice. It’s rare to see hockey portrayed accurately on film and with a visceral sense for how it feels on the ice, but O’Connor and his actors mostly pulled it off.
Why does this moment still reverberate? It all goes back to the subject of “Red Army.” “They were hands down the best team we played against,” Rob stated. “No question their conditioning was superior to any (except ours in Lake Placid in all honesty) and their discipline/sacrifice lead them to success others had not found. It was a big price for them to pay but that was the ‘Soviet’ system at that time.”
In “Red Army,” director Gabe Polsky keeps things brisk and efficient at 76 minutes. If the film grips you like it did this writer (I have my many biases, of course, but still), it flies by and is seemingly over in an instant. Though hockey has often been the most minor of the major sports, and many flat out don’t understand the rules, mechanics, or what makes it the greatest game humans have invented, “Red Army” deserves a wide audience. It should play even better for those who don’t care one iota about the sport, mostly because it’s so entertaining and character-driven. If there is a big complaint to lodge against the film, at least for those with some foreknowledge of the team’s history, it’s too short. There’s so much great material and history to explore with the Soviet team that the film could easily have been a five-hour miniseries and would be even better.
Men’s hockey was introduced to the Olympics in 1920 and became an official part of the Winter Games program in 1924 (women’s hockey only started in 1998). The first three decades were dominated by Canada (a documentary could be made about their hockey supremacy as well), winning all but one of the gold medals until 1956, the first time the Soviets participated in the Olympics. That team went undefeated en route to their first gold. From there on, it was officially the Soviet era. Flanked by twin U.S. gold medal wins in 1960 and 1980 (the SU took bronze and silver these years, respectively), they won gold four times in a row, and twice more in 1984 and 1988, until the team disbanded and eventually formed into the Russia we still know today. From 1956 through 1992, the team’s Olympic record was 62–6–2 (win-loss-tie). They averaged 6.67 goals per game while giving up 1.81 goals. Like James Cameron, betting against the Soviet Union’s hockey team was a fool’s errand.
The film that Polsky did make with “Red Army,” though, nicely establishes the team’s preeminence and influence by zeroing on many of its best players, with top billing going to legend Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov. Essentially the real-life, hockey version of Ivan Drago from “Rocky IV,” you half expect Fetisov’s first words on camera to be “I must break you.” Instead, during the film’s opening, we’re privy to some funny pre-interview moments in which Polsky tries to get his subject’s attention. Fetisov comes off as droll and fascinating, staring at his phone and ignoring the interviewer. Onscreen text lists his seemingly endless list of accolades, awards, championships, and records. The list is so long, like one of Thomas Pynchon’s mighty tomes, that displaying them all turns into a great source of humor as the list keeps going and going offscreen. Then Fetisov gives Polsky, and the audience, the middle finger.
That deeply meta and funny moment, like something out of an Errol Morris or Werner Herzog documentary, instantly endears the audience to this man. It humanizes and stirs a well of empathy for Fetisov and his other teammates featured in the film. Because of the Cold War, only minimally addressed but given the appropriate amount of screen time for context, many Americans grew to hate the Soviet Union and, by extension, its famous athletes. That the film gives the audience an understanding and sympathy for these people is by far its greatest and most unexpected trick.
It’s strong, humanistic stuff to be sure. Polsky, a producer on Herzog’s batshit crazy “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” (Herzog in turn served as executive producer on “Red Army”), clearly did his research, which makes the choice to keep the film at such a brisk run time a tad disconcerting. According to the end credits, he was unable to convince SU head coach Viktor Tikhonov to go in front of cameras for an interview, an unfortunate omission (even if there was nothing the director and his crew could do to convince him, which is likely) that could’ve filled out the story and the vital human relationships at its center. By the time the film ends and the lights go up, it’s hard not to hate Tikhonov and everything he stood for. The film makes clear that his own players hated him more than anybody else. My Uncle, to this day, believes the major turning point (and WTF-was-he-thinking-move) in the Miracle on Ice game was when the coach pulled legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (who many claim as the best to ever play the position) after the first period and replaced him with their backup. Again, not to dwell on it too much, but there’s so much more great stuff to explore that was either left on the cutting room floor or never considered.
In the end, we must review the film before us and not the one we wish for. It’s only fair, even if it’s clear there’s an even better, more substantial documentary to be made from the wealth of history and material (calling on Ken Burns to give us his 10-hour treatise on the history of Olympic hockey… please! We promise to watch it). Even with that caveat, we still heartily recommend “Red Army.” Slight though it may be, it functions best as a gateway to appreciate a great sport that most people flat-out don’t understand, and to explore just one of its many fascinating pieces of history.
Back to my Uncle Rob’s last comment in his email: “When we played them [Soviet Union] a second time in Lake Placid they had become overconfident and were flat. We had a crowd that was 8000 deep but sounded like 20,000. It was magical in every aspect. When [Mike] Eruzione scored the fourth goal to take the lead with 10 minutes left the fans were hysterical. Every player on our team would tell you this: that was the longest 10 minutes of our lives. The clock didn’t seem to move.”
“The rest is history,” he stated.
In terms of the Miracle on Ice, still a great source of ire and shame to the Soviet players that made up perhaps the greatest hockey team to ever play the game, my Uncle couldn’t be more right. It remains a fascinating moment in sports history, one that Americans and, really, any true hockey fan, will never forget. Just take a look at the final minute of that game (listen and look out for Rob McClanahan’s—wearing #24—name near the final countdown), where Al Michaels yelled out those famous words:
Americans had their time to celebrate in 1980 as many were swept up watching a bunch of college kids beat the most dominant force the game has ever seen. It was a true David versus Goliath situation, one you simply couldn’t make up. Of course, Fetisov and his teammates reclaimed their gold medal status in 1984 and 1988. In the end, the “bad guys” tended to win out in the international hockey world. Thankfully, “Red Army” proves they were not, in fact, bad guys. They were just people, like you and I, and they just so happened to be really, really good at playing hockey.
The film also pays homage to the great influence the Soviets had on the sport’s future. Fetisov and many of his compatriots struggled to break free of their country’s stronghold on their lives and careers. Polsky wisely addresses how hard it was for them to not only get to the NHL and make the kind of money their talents deserved, but also when some of them did make it just how different the NHL style of play was to what they knew. Some floundered and never recovered. Others, like Fetisov and his eventual Detroit Red Wing teammates Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Vladimir Konstantinov, went on to even more glory (and a Stanley Cup Championship in 1997). Famed Detroit head coach Scotty Bowman, who appears in the movie, knew that bringing these guys together they could flourish and dominate the game again, even in the NHL where a rougher, slower style of play was the norm.
“Their training methods were ahead of their time and their use of dry land training had not become a staple of everyone’s regiment” my uncle mentioned. USA Coach Herb Brooks was an early adopter of their methods, giving his young upstarts the edge against their superior opponents by famously conditioning them into a well-oiled machine with stamina to burn. This writer still remembers playing hockey competitively in Minnesota through high school and having to endure “Herbies,” as our coaches called them. Named after Brooks, it was the worst time in practice, when the pucks disappeared off the ice and it was time to skate hard. Stopping and starting, from line to line, your legs rubberized after just one turn. Thing is, we should’ve called them Ruskis. [B+]