Tuesday, January 20, 2015

“Red Army”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new documentary “Red Army”. 


Once the Russian hockey team lost the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics, did its players go on to have successful careers or were they banished to Siberia?


In 1980, the Russians had just advanced into the Arab nation of Afghanistan in Southwestern Asia; the purpose of this land-grab appeared to be so that The Soviet Union could make a move to monopolize as much of the continent’s oil as possible.  Other nations opposed this, but it was The United States that was the U.S.S.R.’s greatest opponent in this by aiding the Afghanis in fighting Russian forces.  It was in this same year that the Winter Olympics took place in the small town of Lake Placid, New York where the American hockey team would face The Red Army (as the Russian team was known) to play for the Gold Medal. 

The Red Army’s reputation preceded it; during pre-Olympic games, the Russians had soundly beaten various North American teams, making their Gold Medal playoffs during the Olympics seem merely a formality.  As things turned out, it wound up being Team U.S.A. that would face The Russians to play for the medal; while many Americans would have settled for the moral victory of merely making the championship round, the so-called “Miracle On Ice” occurred when the American hockey team, coached by Herb Brooks, defeated the Russian team and came home as heroes with not only a Gold Medal but a grateful and patriotic nation hailing them as heroes. 

But what of The Red Army?  Under a harsh coach and a government that threatened them to win a one-way ticket to Siberia in the event of a loss, their tough regimen became even worse; some team veterans were let go and the strict Russian coach recruited and trained players new to the system.  Returning to the Gold Medal round in the 1984 Winter Olympics, they beat the Czechoslovakian team and finally won the medal for which their government longed in order to validate the Communist system.  But would the new national heroes profit from this or would the regime manage to squash all hopes of ambition? 


“Red Army” is neither a dull geo-political history lesson nor a jock-happy celebration of sports (hockey, in particular); instead, it is an entertaining and beguiling documentary that humanizes all of the Russian stars involved.  The secrets of the unusual Russian training methods are revealed through extraordinary old newsreel footage from nearly a half-century ago, showing how The Red Army learned to turn their skill into an art of a tapestry of puck-passing that confused other teams confronted by this unorthodox style of play. 

As in any good drama, there are heroes and villains; in this case, however, they are both The Russians.  If you are expecting to find a jingoistic film that celebrates Capitalism and decries Socialism, then please do yourself a favor and look elsewhere.  While the Russian players are shown to have their own sense of patriotism, they are not so blind as to see that they are being used as pawns by their government.  Once they have had a sense of Western life – as was the case when the Russian team visited Canada to play the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers – the players finally got a sense of just how badly they were being used by their government. 

At the risk of carping, there is a technical fault to be found with this documentary – specifically, the way the subtitles were implemented.  Many of the interviewees either spoke Russian only or spoke English with a very heavy Russian accent, which reasonably justifies the use of the subtitles.  Unfortunately, they can be something of a challenge to read at times.  Specifically, this can occur during the use of the newsreel footage (which is in black and white) and the more recent video (against the white background of the ice in the skating rink). 

Red Army (2014) on IMDb

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