The Russians have always made for great villains.
Ever since the Berlin Wall went up, we’ve been menaced by burly, no-nonsense blokes with names like Ivan Drago. It’s a different sporting arena that provides the subject for Gabe Polsky’s Red State.
After a brief talking head by The Gipper himself, Ronald Reagan claiming he can make no promises of a happy ending, the film dives straight in with striking images of Soviet aggression — rockets, gunshots, he Red Menace advancing across a map of Europe — all intercut with footage of some fairly astounding ice hockey. Polsky’s documentary tells the story of how, over the course of the Cold War, the USSR came to dominate the sport of ice hockey.
The key perspective is provided by Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, team captain of the Soviet national team, who, twenty six years after thrashing Canada and becoming national heroes, spends the first few minutes of the his time onscreen pointedly staring at his phone and ignoring his interviewer. Still, as a man who was the Russian Minister for Sport till 2008 and who claims to work twenty hours a day, his preoccupation is not entirely surprising.
From his childhood amidst postwar deprivation — his parents had to buy his first hockey gear on the black market — Fetisov charts his rise to the vanguard of Soviet sport as part of the Russian Five. Isolated from their families by a volatile, narcissistic coach, the Soviet team achieved true sporting greatness. Even as a layman you can appreciate the speed and precision that went into their passing and weaving; a far shout from the more brutal, physical style favored by those in the West.
Fetisov’s own list of achievements literally fill the screen: two Olympic Gold Medals, NHL All-Star, the Order of Lenin. His teammates are somewhat more reticent to talk — one of the Russian Five, Alexei Kasatonov, is generally so subdued that when he spoke out against the team treatment by coach Viktor Tikhonov it carries all the more significance. Composer duo Christophe Beck and Leo Birenberg score Red Army, appropriately, as a thriller, and the film is bedecked with the aggressive Communist symbolism.
Though Fetisov is quick to dismiss any reading of the situation as allegory as “bullshit”, the victory of capitalism here is a bittersweet one. Returning to his homeland from the United States in 1997 with the Stanley Cup in tow, Fetisov discovers a land redefined by capitalism and corruption. Polsky’s documentary ends in following one young boy out onto the ice, filled with hope and wonder, but gone are the days when hockey players took tactical advice from Gary Kasparov.
Red Army is a valuable document on a bygone era when sports matches could stand for the ideological conflict on which the world might pivot. Fetisov might not be the most articulate spokesperson for the era, but damned if he couldn’t skate.