Without becoming defensive, I believe it’s safe to say that if you have never seen Gavin O’Connor’s incredibly uplifting hockey drama, “Miracle,” you’ve been living under some kind of rock. The Kurt Russell-fronted sports flick tells the story of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics where the much feared Soviet Union’s CCCP, or Red Army National Team, more or less the best hockey team in the world, was defeated by the U.S. team and christened the moment that has widely become known as the “Miracle on Ice.” O’Connor’s film is a Walt Disney Pictures production, but it’s not like a “McFarland, USA” or a “Million Dollar Arm,” but more in league with the ‘Remember the Titans” type – hard-hitting, emotionally prevalent, incredibly well acted, and as genuinely crowd pleasing as any underdog story can get. “Miracle” points everything toward one fundamental conclusion, which is that the U.S. team was destined to win this game, and in a time period of political upset and fear, it was arguably the most crippling hit the Soviet Union ever took during the Cold War, and it didn’t involve the launching of a missile but rather the shooting of a puck.
With that in mind, it should come to no surprise that there is, of course, another side to this story. For every winner, there is a loser. The losers of this particular, highly historic hockey game, are the center of Gabe Polsky’s investing, exciting, and extremely well-told documentary, “Red Army,” which should prove to find admirers among the most die hard of hockey fans and total novices alike.
A Yale University grad and an avid hockey fan, plus a former player himself, documentarian Polsky comes from a Soviet family who immigrated to Chicago, IL in the late 1970’s. Having worked primarily as a producer, with a single co-directing credit on “The Motel Life,” a casual indie that he made alongside his brother, Alan, “Red Army” serves as not only Polsky’s first documentary, but also his debut as a sole director. To describe the ambition that is on display in this whip-quick, enlivened doc isn’t fully possible. Sticking to hard facts and including moving interviews from the key members of the CCCP team, “Red Army” not only proves to be enlightening and truly fascinating, but also shows off Polsky’s sheer abilities, who through subtle style and flair manages to forego standard storytelling procedures and transforms his 86-minute film into a playful and poignant experience.
At the center of Polsky’s escalating tale is arguably the sport’s greatest defenseman to ever play the game, Vyacheslav Fetisov (or Slava, for short). Indisposed at first glace, due to an excess of emails and text messages that he is struggling to read and respond to while Polsky hilariously rolls the camera and tries to get his attention which just brings out the “Russian” in Fetisov almost immediately – he flips the director the middle finger before ten minutes of his own documentary have passed. But Fetisov’s past and controversial hockey history is explored doggedly by Polsky’s investigative questions, and ultimately provides a concrete foundation for the larger story that Polsky is aching to tell. While Slava’s phenomenal teammates are interviewed at length as well, none of them prove to be as stirring or as magnetic as Slava, whose presence on screen is intensely natural yet remarkably charismatic. Mark Feeney from the Boston Globe referred to his appearance as “a cross between Sam Neill and Klaus Kinski,” to which I’m quite compelled to agree. As the viewer’s tour guide into the long-vanished world high-level Communist sports and politics, Fetisov has a winning sense of humor and a strange humility given his unmistakable talents, but he’s also got an intense emotional attachment to the passion that was consistently torn away from him. There’s an invisible fragility to him that Polsky is looking to crack, and while he may have only dented the surface, the information, feelings, memories and flooding nostalgia that he’s able to mine from the CCCP legend is immeasurable.
To Polsky’s credit, he does a lot of ground floor teaching – 20th Century Hockey 101 – but he doesn’t let the mythos of the sport overtake the story he’s always pushing forward with. There’s a ton of archival footage used throughout the doc and I’m amazed that he was not only able to collect it all in such wowing quality, but also able to implement a great deal of it (I can only imagine how many more hours he had in his possession during post-production). Early on, Polsky brings up clips of hockey master, Anatoli Tarasov, a CCCP administrator whose methods were partly inspired by the Bolshoi Ballet. Watching these clips is eye opening, and Fetisov reminisces about his early training days with Tarasov with great admiration. Tarasov was a phenomenal mentor to many players, but he was replaced by the totalitarian Viktor Tikhonov for awful political reasons; Polsky sculpts Tikhonov as the villain of the story (he also refused to be interviewed for the documentary, like there would be much wiggle room for him to defend himself anyway). This becomes apparent when Polsky moves too the aforementioned “Miracle on Ice” moment, during which Tikhonov was the coach and made the grave move of removing star goalie Vladislav Tretiak from the net, a needless tactic that many say caused the CCCP to ultimately lose the game.
When Polsky shows clips from the crucial Lake Placid game, it’s amazing the reaction he garners from his placement and use of the footage. For us Americans, remembering how joyful the recreation of the game is in “Miracle,” watching the actual footage should conjure an even stronger feeling, but somehow it’s transformed into soberly bittersweet. By sympathizing not with the geopolitical atmosphere of the Soviet Union, but by making the neutral players of the game the stars of this story, these clips are weirdly deflating. Losing hurts, and I can’t even fathom what losing this specific game felt like. Polsky cuts to Fetisov’s face as he watches these clips himself and his reaction is indescribable, mostly because I’m sure his emotions are impossible to register. I was amazed by how Polsky had been able to influence my emotional response to these historic clips; there is no truer testament to a documentarian’s craft then when he can contextualize history and justly influence your feelings in a way contrary to what you’ve felt before.
Polsky touches on a lot more than just what playing hockey for the CCCP during the Cold War was like. In fact, the documentary culminates in the present, with an epilogue-like roundup that feels very fitting. He also tangents into dangerous territory discussing the KGB’s potential involvement in the public appearances of some Red Army players, specifically during the time when the NHL was begging Slava Fetisov to come and play for the Red Wings (which he ultimately did and won two Stanley Cups) and Slava’s Red Army teammates went on TV to publicly back his decision to “defect.” However, co-defenseman Alexei Kasatonov, whom Fetisov considered his best friend, refused to support Slava’s decision for, what the documentary infers, is reasons connected to death threats from the KGB. The way Polsky is able to clarify this inference is maybe of the best camera movements and editing choices in a documentary I have ever seen. I was floored by how clearly, yet without saying as much a single dignified word, Polsky was able to get his point across.
“Red Army” does an immaculate job at being about much more than just the game. It’s about friendship, perseverance, a terrifying geopolitical climate, and the domino effect of recent Russian history. It’s none of the rah-rah, underdog grittiness of “Miracle,” but it’s got a stark, tilted-head sense of patriotism about it. It’s a relevant and phenomenally explored story told with envious ease by first-timer Gabe Polsky. As a surface-level sports fans who considers “Miracle” among the very best of sports movies ever made, “Red Army” indubitably earns a spot right alongside it, not only as a wonderful foil, but as an indicator of equal quality through a mirrored medium of the same story’s other, should-be-heard side.
Review by Mike Murphy