Early on in “The Red Army,” Viacheslav Fetisov, the legendary defenseman of the Red Army ice hockey club and star of the documentary, refuses to cooperate with Gabe Polsky (“The Motel Life”), the documentarian. Wry smile on his lips, he checks his phone, making a crack about American work ethic, as Polsky — unable to restrain himself — pelts him with questions. The comedic dance between director and star is just one facet of humor in “The Red Army,” Polsky’s film about the iconic Russian hockey team and its Soviet-era backdrop. It’s funnier than you would expect: kids sing propaganda songs, on-screen lyrics marked by a bouncing hammer-and-sickle, Fetisov slings jabs at Polsky, a dictatorial coach’s habit of hitting his players draws audience laughs. Yet for its levity and flashy graphics, “The Red Army” still wields a hefty thematic load as it explores the politics that played out on ice, as well as the aesthetics of an aggressive, beautiful sport.

The Red Army

A
State Theater
Sony Picture Classics

Cultural critic Roland Barthes wrote in “The World of Wrestling” that in the U.S., “wrestling represents a kind of mythological combat between Good and Evil … the ‘bad wrestler’ always presumed to be a Red.” This maxim latches easily onto ice hockey, especially during the monumental 1980 Winter Olympics when American “underdogs” (as if the U.S. could ever be the humble long shot) defeated the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, New York. Amid Russia’s recent invasion of Afghanistan and plunged deep in the Cold War, both media and President Jimmy Carter took every advantage to situate the game within ideological significance as athletes were blown into symbolic manifestations of Communism versus Capitalism. For the U.S., this grand narrative spawned “Miracles on Ice,” but for the Russians, it was a frustrating — yet small — battle lost.

Up until 1972, the beloved coach Anatoli Tarasov led the team, which is where “Red Army” elevates a sports documentary into a sophisticated look at the art underlying the game. Tarasov’s brand of coaching drew inspiration from maestros of ballet and chess alike to create the complex plays that defined the team’s technical prowess. The film deftly characterizes what makes Russian hockey so distinct from its clunky rivals’ type of play — that is, the team’s point of intersection between individual talent and collaborative, spontaneous creativity. At times it appears like the team shares one hyperactive brain, especially as they weave labyrinthine and graceful passes up and down the rink, gliding as quickly as synapses firing off, leaving opponents stupefied.

The test point for a documentary is its ability to draw the viewer in into its niche universe, to assimilate them into its rhythms of local culture. “Red Army” achieves this and more, by not only exploring the close-knit dynamics of the team, but by tracking the interposition of world politics on a group of talented players who just want to, well, play hockey. After the spectacular failure of the Olympics that played out on the global media stage, the Soviet Union immediately regrouped their patriotic sport par example by radically restructuring: a swath of longstanding members are out, and Viktor Tikhonov, Tarasov’s successor, doubles down. Intractably embedded in politics, the Red Army Team was actually an official part of the Soviet Army during the era and Tikhonov plays the general with the full brunt of his government-sanctioned authority. Training lengthens and intensifies, and the idyllic relations between the team start to crumble. “Red Army” draws its narrative work from interviews with the core team members who don’t hold back in their criticism of Tikhonov, a figure who encapsulates the worst impulses of his government. Isolated for 11 months of the year and treated with little compassion (a teammate recalls not being allowed to visit his dying father) the team culls viewer sympathy easily. Intriguingly though, the film doesn’t shy away from the logistical success of Tikhonov’s tactics — a slew of wins follow. While never becoming an allegory, “Red Army” elegantly aligns these tailing years of the Soviet Union with the team’s own declining morale, as team members ultimately defect to U.S. teams with much resistance from their own government.

Through its final leg, “Red Army” explores questions of national identity. Far from being opponents of Russia, the players retain a complicated solidarity with not just their country, but with the state they were shaped by. Even as 1991’s failed coup brings a wave of economic freedom, this post-Union period is marked by lawlessness and corruption, which Fetisov and his teammates mourn. Similarly, the team’s various moves to the U.S. are portrayed with vex, but “Red Army” still finds a quietly triumphant ending, as five members reunite in Detroit’s own Red Wings team, bringing their elaborate style of hockey to American ice. For the sheer breadth of thematic ground “Red Army” moves through, its run time of 76 minutes could have felt slight. Yet just as its subject springs to life through feats of astonishing choreography, “Red Army,” too, displays remarkable talent in spinning its far-flung narrative threads together.

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