Saturday, October 04, 2014

NYFF ’14: Red Army

Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov remains one of the most celebrated players in the history of Russian hockey, but he was also the closest thing to a Curt Flood among Soviet hockey players. With his best friends, he made up a legendary five man line, but his place in the thorny legacy of Soviet is particularly complicated. Logically, Fetisov serves as the focal point when Gabe Polsky chronicles the Soviet hockey machine’s history in Red Army (trailer here), which screens during the 52nd New York Film Festival.

When Stalin identified sports as key propaganda tool in the coming Cold War with the free world, Anatoli Tarasov was tapped to build the Soviet hockey system. In just a few short years, the Red Army team dominated international competitions. Beloved by his players, most definitely including Fetisov, Tarasov would have been a hard act for any coach to follow, but the Politburo-connected Viktor Tikhonov would command little respect and no affection from his teams.

Frankly, it is rather odd watching a hockey doc in which the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid is treated by most participants as an inconvenient speed bump to get over. It was Fetisov and Tikhonov’s first crack at Olympic glory, but Herb Brooks and squad of college players had a different plan (if you really don’t know what happened in that semi-final, watch the final minute here). Unfortunately, the embarrassment of their Olympic defeat gave Tikhonov an opportunity to purge the coaching staff and institute a ridiculously stringent training regimen.

With Putin prosecuting his military campaign against Ukraine, it definitely feels like an inopportune time for Soviet nostalgia, especially considering Polsky’s own Ukrainian heritage. However, Polsky presents a somewhat balanced portrait of the era, addressing the systemic scarcity and control over the individual that defined life in the USSR. In many ways, Tikhonov the martinet becomes the personification of the Soviet system, as well as the story’s unambiguous villain.

Clearly, there is no love lost between the former national coach (who declined to participate in the film) and Fetisov. With fair justification, Fetisov blames Tikhonov for blocking his attempts to accept the lucrative offers from American professional team. Essentially, he waged a battle in the Glasnost-thawed press to allow a sort of free agency among Soviet players, but unlike Flood, he would eventually reap the benefits of his efforts.

Still, Polsky seems to have hipster fascination with Soviet iconography and a pronounced timidity with respects to the human rights violations that were being committed by the Soviets and their proxies during the period in question, most notably the imposition of martial law in Poland. Nevertheless, the film raises a number of issues that merit further exploration, starting with the treatment of the players themselves, who really got a raw deal compared to the life of privilege afforded to East Germany’s Katarina Witt.

Although they were athletes, the hockey team really served as propaganda pawns. As a result, there are clearly still a lot of mixed feelings about their glory years, including pride in their accomplishments and resentment of Tikhonov and the high level Party members who enabled him. It is not a perfect film but it peals back the curtain far enough to give viewers an intriguing peak into the Soviet sports program. It is all briskly watchable thanks to the era-evocative graphics and the whiz-bang editing of Eli Despres and Kurt Engfehr. Recommended for experienced amateur Kremlinologists, Red Army screens today (10/4) at the Walter Reade and tomorrow (10/5) at the Gilman, as part of this year’s NYFF.