No, it’ not (directly) about the actual Soviet-era military, and yes, it’s about hockey, and no, you don’t need to know or like hockey to appreciate it.
Red Army looks at the Soviet Union’s HC CSKA Moscow hockey club of the 1980s, which, due to its alignment with the Soviet Army, was often known as the “Red Army” team. It’s also the Olympic team the United States famously defeated in the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics–the “Miracle on Ice.” (That match’s outcome, so patriotically triumphant in America, is shown in the documentary from the other side, with the dejection of the defeated Soviet players.) The film introduces us to the history, style, and interpersonal ups and downs of the Soviet hockey team through the eyes of its legendary captain Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov.
Polsky has been making films for years with his brother Alan (including producing Werner Herzog and Nic Cage’s awesome Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans and co-directing the recent indie The Motel Life), but this is his first time directing solo and his first documentary,
I sat down with Polsky last month in Chicago to talk about Red Army, his own personal connections to the Soviet Union and hockey, the nature of sport as a conveyor of culture and the beauty of Russian hockey compared to the North American game, and what film making advice he got from Werner Herzog.
Red Army is playing in theaters in select cities.
Gabe Polsky: My parents are from the former Soviet Union Ukraine–they came over in 1976, so I grew up in the Glencoe suburb of Chicago. It was the end of the Cold War, and it wasn’t that cool to be the son of Soviet immigrants, so I was trying to assimilate.
I was a very serious hockey player—I wanted to play at the highest level; I was very competitive. I got my hands on a VHS tape where I saw the Soviet Union play hockey for the first time. It was mind-boggling and confusing. I was thinking, Why don’t we see more of this, why don’t we play this way? It was the most creative demonstration of sports I’d ever seen. It was amazing, and they were dominant. They’re passing ten times more and weaving – it was beautiful, like art.
So I got curious about my own background because I wanted to know more about this team and how they came to be. And I was confused—we live in such a free society, but why is our hockey so confining and limiting and aggressive and sort of dull? Whereas they live in a terrible, brutal society, but their hockey is free and open.
I went to Yale and played hockey, was a political science major. As I started doing films I did some research and realized the story of the hockey team was really the story of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union—it was a very deep and profound story about not just hockey but friendship and betrayal and the nature of patriotism.
It’s about Russia and its relationship with the West in the past and the future. It really puts a face on who the Russian people are and their experience.
We tend to see sports as entertainment, but they are so deeply woven both into and out of our culture and values.
Polsky: It’s exactly the same as with the arts—the idea that sports communicate ideas to us just like movies do. It tells us about the society and the individual. When you look at an individual and see how they play sports, you can tell a lot about who they are as a person. It’s the same with a team—they’re always communicating ideas. The Soviet leaders knew that, that you can communicate a lot of things through sport—it’s like poetry, reading between the lines.
Americans don’t usually think of Soviet Russia and think of creativity and artistic beauty.
Polsky: In sports and in hockey in particular it was a creative revolution. That’s so important to look at and study. We go to sporting events because we want to see something amazing, something magic, like collective passing and beautiful movement, which doesn’t exist in American hockey.
That’s why people don’t like American and Canadian hockey—there’s nothing interesting to watch, there’s guys hitting each other, you don’t know what the hell is going on. When you watch this movie, it’s self-evident that these guys were masters of the game.
The film really captures the cost of perfection, the sacrifice of time and family life.
Polsky: They do it by choice, but if you want to be great, you don’t’ really have a choice. It’s a competitive world—you’ll never be great if you’re being forced to do anything. These guys loved it, but at a certain point they looked at the guys in the NHL and thought, “These guys are making tons of money, they get to go out at night.”
Polsky: Absolutely, but you can also use that as a strength in the film. They can be hard, but you can push that and get things. Not everything has to be verbal—it can be what they don’t say and how they react to things. That is who they are. You gotta work around those issues and use it to your advantage.
Post-Cold War, we Americans tend to have such mixed-up impressions of the Russian people and their culture.
We’ve gone from assuming all Cold War Russians were cold, cruel Communist robots to assuming they’re all corrupt, greedy criminals or macho thugs like Putin.
So it’s powerful and instructive when Fetisov speaks of the “pride and soul” of Russia and how he longed to get back there.
Polsky: Even now, today, this movie is just as relevant. People don’t really know who Russians are—we read all this crazy stuff in the media, but we don’t know who these people are, their experiences and how they live and their history. This movie brings to light this history and the people and what shaped them on a human level.
Slava laughs at how we Americans assume these things. He gets very upset because he is a politician, when we assume that we’re always right about everything, that we know everything. I’m wondering what other people in other countries think of us, of America. Do they look at us too like these aggressive gangsters?
There are so many challenges and issues and problems in Russia. It’s gotten terrible, the relationship between the US and Russia. Slava wants to help out and achieve stability and for his country to thrive and for people to be happy. He’s gonna do whatever he thinks is right to achieve that.
Polsky: Just from his work. You don’t have to talk and get specific tips, but it would be a crime not to say that he was influential, just through his work. I borrowed from him mentally. I appreciate film makers who get at very deep truths in strange ways, like Herzog.
I showed him the film and he was one of the first people who was just immediately supportive and appreciative. He said this was a very special movie and deep—he kept saying that, “deep” – he’d say, “it’s about men and friendship.”
Obviously from a guy like that who doesn’t bullshit, I was really taken by that. He said if he could help, let him know so I told him I’d be honored if he’d be an executive producer and guide me through the distribution process.
Honestly, people weren’t immediately supportive; some festivals weren’t. That was really hard on me because I thought I’d made a great movie and really put my heart into it and I know it’s great. I humbly say that. And for some reason there were a couple festivals that dismissed it.
Werner said, “Don’t worry, it’s an insane grotesque world.” He once said, “You can’t be a film maker if you don’t understand the heart of men.” I know it’s a simple thing, but really it’s the essence of what a good filmmaker is. That’s ultimately what this movie is, about the Russian soul of men.