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Monday, December 7, 2015

'Red Army', playing ice-Cold War

Red Army

Still "happily abducted" by sports documentaries, here's a quick shift from basketball (more to come very soon) to hockey. But it would be a major mistake to consider 'Red Army' just a film about sports. On the contrary, it's an original, very powerful look at history and politics. A simple yet quite deep and sounding insight on the recent past and the dramatic transformations of the Soviet Union/Russia. And a captivating tale on talented individuals being part of the strict and gigantic machinery of a system in the verge of collapse. All on ice!

'Red Army' goes down with the chronicle of the Soviet Union's most successful national team on sports (easily comparable with an almost unbeatable dynasty: the team won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991, never failed to medal in any International Ice Hockey Federation tournament they competed in): the Red Army hockey team. But forget about epic games, memorable situations and bombastic plays. The legendary team was, of course, a joy to see, with hall of fame players arguably among the best that sport has ever seen... but the film puts the focus on what was behind that USSR dream team. And what the viewer see is equally thrilling and scary. 

Director Gabe Poslky shows us how the soviet national hockey team was a propaganda instrument, one that served the purpose of creating heroes within the country and built an image of being indestructible to rivals. It didn't have much to do with sports. It was a matter of politics in the late Cold War days. The squad dominating world hockey, for USSR leaders at least, meant communism exhibiting its power and glory to the whole planet. Cold War was also a culture war that played in many different venues. Also on ice.

To achieve that goal, the players needed to commit themselves to an incredible amount of effort, with methods and attitudes that crossed the line between what was sport obsession, extreme determination of elite sports, and demented practices. 'Red Army' explains how the national players went from tough but beloved and respected coach Anatoli Tarasov, who emphasized skills and personal abilities to help the team (probably a romanticised, even poetic look) to the dictatorial regime of General /coach Viktor Tikhonov. A tyrant who had nearly absolute control over his players' lives (there's a horrific scene regarding the serious illness of one player's father who says everything), making his players practice for 10/11 months a year, isolating them from their families and friends. Followed everywhere by KGB. Punishing them to after the 'Miracle on Ice' happened (the defeat on 1980'S Olympics against the US). And the nightmares just begun...

The previous lines on Tikhonov are not my opinion, but national team captain's Viacheslav 'Slava' Fetisov (considered one of the best players ever). He is the main character of the film, along with other legendary players and hockey-related journalist, directives and analysts. And the story he reveals, somehow reluctantly (adding poignancy and depth to the film) is the crude tale of a country dealing with a crisis and serious internal conflicts, and how sport mirrored social evolution, announcing the fall of the communist system...  a transformation full of struggles, suffering, injustices and dubious results. Polsky, in an extremely wise movement, is capable of encapsulating such a big and complex topic, the decline and transformation of an empire through the words and expressions of someone whose past and present is so intrinsec of the country. Fetisov, once an indisputable national hero became a country's traitor once he expressed his desire to play in the American NHL, tired of inhuman practices, over-strict regulations and low incomes. His fight against USSR authorities was titanic and appalling, as he obviously risked his life (not to miss the meeting with Soviet Minister of Defence), and sacrificed a couple of years of his extremely successful career, before he could play at the States, thanks to Gorbachev's glasnost policies and, eventually, the collapse of the socialist republic, leading a bunch of Russian colleagues. 

But, as I said, Fetisov is an incredibly interesting character, and that's what makes 'Red Army' stunning. Because he gets mad at the director when he asks him about the Cold War (it was about money). Because he's a tough guy trying so hard not to break in front of the camera, even when he is admitting he was betrayed by his friends, his country. And because the whole picture doesn't end at the States. He struggled at his first American team, the New Jersey Devils (as well as his fellow red army colleagues playing in America). He wasn't really appreciated by fans either (after all, the fear of communism existed)... He missed the game as it was played back home (again, Tarasov's school). Until he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, where he reunited with some Russian up-and-coming stars to won back-to-back titles... that he took to Moscow. Somehow, he was still playing for his country, although his country was completely different then (chills to see/hear him and some other players talking about the new, capitalist Russia). He then became Russia Minister of Sport under President Vladimir Putin government (until 2008). He was still on a mission. What a mind blowing look into a human being in all his contradictions, idiosyncrasy, virtues and wonders. What a refreshing take on a country experimenting one of its crucial periods in history. Great documentary. 

SCORE: 7,75/10

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