Red Army is an inspiring true story about the Cold War played out on the ice rink, and a man who stood up to a powerful system, paving the way for generations of Russians. From Oscar-nominated and Emmy award-winning filmmakers, Red Army examines the most successful dynasty in sports history: the Red Army hockey team. Told from the perspective of its captain, Slava Fetisov, the story portrays his transformation from national hero to political enemy. With the demise of Communism came the end of the Cold War, as Soviet players began joining the National Hockey League. The film examines how sport mirrors social and cultural movements in Cold War Russia.
Gabe Polsky's documentary 'Red Army' tells the story of Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov, one of the most successful defensemen to ever play hockey. His career ran from 1976-1998, starting as a member of the Soviet national hockey team and later playing for two NHL teams. But just as the story of baseball player Jackie Robinson ('42') is not limited to the man or the sport because of the societal issues related with his breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier, neither is the story of 'Red Army', which tells a very compelling tale about the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States and a few people stuck in the middle who suffered because of a game.
As the film begins, Fetisov, who at the time of the interview was a Russian politician, seems uninterested in taking part. Although seated, he works his phone and ignores Polsky. But as time wears on, Fetisov opens up, and a bond of respect forms between them. Polsky is curious about Soviet hockey for a number of reasons. His parents are from the former Soviet Union, as was a hockey coach he learned under while a young man in Chicago. He also mentions watching and being fascinated by the 1987 Canada Cup, a greatly heralded competition that saw Canada beat the Soviet Union two games to one, with all three games ending in a score of 6-5.
As a Soviet player, Fetisov had two coaches. Anatoli Tarasov is considered one of the all-time greats. He saw hockey as an art form and wrote books about it. He had a profound influence on Fetisov's life. His unorthodox ways led to success but also led to his firing when he displeased Soviet leaders. Viktor Tikhonov replaced him at the choosing of a KGB chief, and he was brutal taskmaster, who felt players should fear their coach. While they were soldiers in the Soviet army, Tikhonov treated them more like prisoners.
After the loss in the 1980 Winter Olympics to the United States, which still has a deep effect on Fetisov, the team's veterans were cut and the workload intensified. Training lasted eleven months out of the year with four workouts a day, and no personal time off was allowed, not even for a player whose father was dying, and yet from that arose one of the greatest units in hockey history. Sergei Makarov, Igor Larinov, Vladamir Krutov, Alexei Kasatonov joined Fetisov for a dominating run against both international teams and from the NHL. When going up against Czechoslovakia for the Olympic gold medal in the 1984 Sarajevo games, this Soviet team had not lost a game in two years.
While 'Red Army' may appear on the surface to only be of interest to hockey fans, it excels when Polsky dives deeper into the lives of Fetisov and the players off the ice. Retied KGB agent Felix Nechepore offers insight into political side, talking about traveling with team to Canada to keep players from defecting. With the Soviet Union's economy failing, Gorbachev proposed major reforms of "Perestroika" and "Glastnost," but the players were still subject to the whims of their leaders. Some players accepted what happened, some defected to play elsewhere, and some like Fetisov rebelled, which naturally had consequences. Finally, he was allowed to join the NHL, which made for an intriguing final act for his career.
'Red Army' is important not just for those interested in hockey but history as well. Though told by their governments that the other was the enemy, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had more in common than either side wanted realized, as revealed once you hear the stories of the Soviet hockey players. The highs and lows they experienced in their lives is recognizable through our shared humanity no matter what country we were born in or what uniform we wear. 'Red Army' is a great documentary because it takes a niche subject and tells a larger, identifiable story with it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Classics presents Red Army on a 50GB disc housed within a standard blue keepcase. Before the menu appears, there are trailers for 'The Salt of the Earth' and 'Merchants of Doubt'.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer with a varying aspect ratio. The modern-day interviews are of decent quality. Colors are solid consistent hues and there's some texture detail on display. The picture is clean and the images can be sharp, but some scenes have a little softness creep on the source. The staging of some subjects with their shoulders perpendicular as they face the camera in small rooms creates a flat look.
Like many documentaries, historical significance trumped visual quality when Polsky and his team put 'Red Army' together. The archival footage is not only comprised of films of various formats and old videotapes of TV broadcasts, but there's even material shot on consumer-grade equipment. Blacks can be inky or light. Red Soviets uniforms can be bright or dull.
While the film clips have varying degrees of dirt and damage on display, the video from TV sources suffers the most. The focus is rarely sharp and detail is poor. The home video takes it a step farther with tracking issues appearing at the bottom of the frame. And yet as poor as it all looks, at least there's some documentation of what happened.
The audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1. The track is dialogue-heavy. It is anchored in the front-center channel and is usually louder than the other elements. Occasional music can be heard in the surrounds, as can sleight ambiance effects, like artificial crowd noise at arenas, but nothing moves through channels. The bass is limited and the dynamic range is narrow. The archival footage audio is bettered than expected in terms of hiss or signs of wear and damage.
The overall score being low due to techinical limitations of the source material is the only thing keeping my "bottom line" from being "highly recommend." I found the stories told in 'Red Army' to be historically important and deserving to be learned regardless of the viewer's interest in hockey.