Back in May, in a dispatch from Cannes, the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis called Red Army “one of the festival’s most pleasurable surprises.” It’s a “documentary about the rise and fall of Soviet hockey” that features Slava Fetisov, “the former ice hockey god… who helped lead the Soviet team to two Olympic gold medals and one silver as well as seven world championships in the 1970s and ’80s.” Gabe Polsky, “the son of Soviet immigrants, grew up in Chicago wanting to be a professional hockey player. Instead, he landed at Yale University and then in Los Angeles, where he and his brother, Alan Polsky, directed a movie about brothers, The Motel Life, that didn’t go to Sundance or anywhere, really. They also helped produce His Way, a documentary about the producer Jerry Weintraub, and did the same with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, directed by Werner Herzog. (Mr. Weintraub and Mr. Herzog have signed onto Red Army as executive producers.) Gabe Polsky went it alone to direct Red Army, which slips between the personal and the political while recounting how Mr. Fetisov and his team sacrificed body and soul to both hockey and country.”
“Recruited as children, future rink heroes were trained like soldiers on the ice, crawling and somersaulting and carrying tires or teammates as they skated,” writes Aaron Hillis at Filmmaker, where Vadim Rizov has five questions for Polsky. “Like chess masters, the Red Army’s passing game became an intuitive Three-card Monte that baffled their opponents, and failure was never an option under the disciplinarian regime of coaches who literally worked for the Defense Ministry. The history books can’t take away those 19 World Championships, but in all the away-game globetrotting, Mother Russia couldn’t keep its young players from tasting the capitalist freedoms of the West, which is how Slava and some of his clan became political traitors by defecting to the NHL for big paydays. Glasnost and perestroika weren’t indoctrinations but mere buzzwords, the film posits, and the KGB was always watching.”
For the Guardian‘s Henry Barnes, “the story’s great irony was that skills that made the Soviets fantastic hockey players—teamwork, cooperation—were useless in an American system that demanded star power. Separated they floundered.”
“Relying on talking-head interviews, expository voiceover, and a linear assemblage of historical events, this is a documentary whose only (infinitesimal) value is to generate nostalgia in those who lived through it or inform those who didn’t,” writes Blake Williams for Cinema Scope. “In the realm of possible decisions one could make when it comes to sports docs, you can’t get more conventional than this.”
“However problematic the presentation, Red Army is built from rich material,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com. “The political history is also fascinating: Soviet athletes who were given permission to play for the NHL were expected to donate the majority of their salaries to the government. (Fetisov says his family was threatened.) And even with success, the emigrant athletes often felt ambivalent about their lives in America. Filled with old clips, Red Army goes far too light on historical and personal details—by far its most interesting aspects.”
For Variety‘s Justin Chang, Red Army is “terrifically engaging” and, in the Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Dalton calls it “a slick, witty, fast-moving blend of sports story and history lesson.” At the Film Stage, Asta Sabaliauskaite talks with Polsky and Fetisov.
Update, 10/7: At Filmmaker, Howard Feinstein notes that Polsky “also interviews the former KGB agent who traveled with the team to the U.S. in their heyday, gauging his cool response to the country against Fetisov and the other young athletes’ wide-eyed embrace. It’s ironic how a similar first encounter with materialism turned the player’s stomach on his initial visit back to the newly capitalist Moscow after the collapse of the USSR.”
Update, 11/5: The AFI interviews Polsky.
Update, 11/10: Patrick Z. McGavin talks with Polsky for RogerEbert.com.
Updates, 11/12: For Kenji Fujishima, writing for Slant, “Red Army distinguishes itself from most sports movies with its bracingly nuanced view of national identity.”
“Our inclination, naturally, is to root for Fetisov to champion the American way of life,” writes Amy Nicholson for the Voice. “but Red Army has laid the groundwork for something more complex: It reveals the strengths of the Soviet athletic program and the weaknesses of our own—a star-driven, money-flaunting braggart that, er, shares the same flaws as capitalism.”
“Polsky is sometimes awkward in his questioning, but he spurs his interviewees to serious reflection and even nostalgia,” notes Time Out‘s Joshua Rothkopf.
Updates, 11/13: “Good sports movies are always about more than sports,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “Miracle, Gavin O’Connor’s 2004 feature about the 1980 American team, with Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks, is a fable of underdog grit and can-do spirit. Red Army touches on themes of friendship and perseverance, and also offers a compact and vivid summary of recent Russian history. It provides as clear an explanation as I have seen for the appeal of Vladimir V. Putin, who has revived some of the patriotic sentiments that held the old system in place, including the emphasis on sports as an expression of national greatness.”
“If Miracle can be thought of as Flags of Our Fathers: On Ice, Red Army is its Letters From Iwo Jima,” suggests David Ehrlich at the AV Club.
Update, 11/23: “True to the tradition of sport documentaries, it’s structured to be the story of a triumph, featuring a main character who has the swagger of not just a survivor but a victor,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “Polsky knows enough to send you out of the theater with a smile, won at his own expense if necessary. But he also knows there are implications to this tale that go beyond the sport, and nuances that are absent from clichés about Soviet life. Like the high-speed weaving and passing of the Red Army team, his movie is fun to watch, but actually very complicated.”