To audiences outside of North America and Russia, the “Miracle on Ice” won’t mean much save for those few who watched Disney’s adaptation of the Miracle ten years ago. Yet to those countries, this hockey game, which took place during the Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympics, has such stratospheric importance that Sports Illustrated named it “The Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century”.
While this is arguably an exaggeration, the “Miracle” did capture the imagination of a whole generation of cold war indoctrinated Americans, at a time when tensions between the two nations were at an all time high. Played during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Americans would soon rule to boycott the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics, after decades of tensions came very close to boiling point.
This is the picture Gabe Polsky (an American born of Soviet immigrants) paints early on in his debut feature Red Army to contextualise a familiar world crisis, which can be still universally recognised even 35 years on. What is unique about his film however is that, after all this time, not much is actually known about the formidable “Red Army” hockey team who dominated the sport throughout the 60s and 70s and were the heavy favourites going into the USA match; a team made of college students and amateurs.
Thus Red Army explores the massive socio-political implications of the Soviet’s ice hockey team, who were a tremendous source of pride to the state and seen as intrinsically important to the strength of the USSR both socially and internationally, and its effect on the players and staff involved.
The film focuses on the team’s most decorated and celebrated player Slava Fetishov: regarded as one of the best defensive players in the history of the sport, he grew up in the Soviet academy during their dominance, played in the infamous “Miracle” game, captained during the Soviet’s two 80’s golds and finally defied the oppressive Soviet state to become a successful NHL player in the 90s. While his list of honours may provide something of a spoiler for unaware viewers, Fetishov is a remarkable talent who builds a tantamount rapport with Polsky on screen, creating great moments of escalation and desperation, while reminiscing about his and his comrades’ careers.
Through archival footage and interviews with the players, Polsky shows us the brutal training regimes that ensured the Soviet system was the best. It is hard not to sympathise with these supposed “bad guys”, as they were frequently estranged from their loved ones for almost 12 months a year, and had to fight so hard to be the best as the sport they loved. Yet, to see the bonds formed from this band of brothers is truly inspiring; we see that even in the highest pressure scenarios in sport or politics, friendship can carry people through.
Unfortunately however, there is something that feels frustratingly out of reach in Polsky’s film. While he creates excellent, well contextualised timelines, with some earnestly emotional responses from his subjects (especially Fetishov), Polsky is penchant to glossing over some details a little too easily. Admittedly Polsky packs a lot of weight into the film’s relatively slender 85 minute runtime, but it is does mean that the film’s emotional impact dissipates in personal moments, as too much attention is focused on the might of the team and state.
While emotionally involving documentary filmmaking is always a very difficult task, one feels Polsky is just a little bit restrained at times in respect of his subjects, which makes this otherwise charming story suffer. [Spoiler warning:] The final reveal of Fetishov’s current role in Putin’s government being left unquestioned or largely unparalleled to the past is a particularly interesting oversight, but perhaps like certain details left out from the Soviet era, it is a bit too close to the top to be expressed for now.
Despite this, Red Army is a fascinating look at a team generally regarded as faceless enemies and succeeds in humanising them both as great athletes and normal humans. While the “Miracle” may be met with hostility (ESPN’s recent documentary Of Men and Miracles is a good example of this), there is no denying this intriguing insight from behind the Iron Curtain.