Not every documentary has to call attention to its own craft. Although nonfiction cinema is always reflexive, there are films that get away with more heightened meta-ness while others drown in their own making-of qualities. Some, like Red Army, seem accidental in their extra-reflexiveness by way of either sloppiness or unpreparedness or the difficulty of their subjects. Gabe Polsky, who directed Red Army and whose prior documentary experience consists of producing His Way (about Jerry Weintraub, who in turn is an executive producer on this), comes off as having struggled through the making of his film, mainly due to the third circumstance.
But did he have to draw so much attention to the difficulty of interviewing Russian hockey legend Slava Fetisov? The main body of Red Army opens with a shot of the athlete seated for a traditional testimonial but preoccupied with his phone and either ignoring the attempts by Polsky to begin or gesturing for the filmmaker to wait a moment because he’s “busy.” The focus of the documentary is on the eponymous national hockey team of the Soviet Union during the 1970s through the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. But Fetisov is the primary storyteller, leading the production much like he captained his fellow players on the ice. He is stiff and serious as a Russian stereotype, and watching him command the conversation and deflect much of Polsky’s inquiries makes the interview like a game of sport itself.
Polsky never goes for the overt acknowledgment of what’s going on. There is no voiceover from him admitting what he was trying to do with the doc and where he had trouble and how he felt about the result. That would have given the form some context and maybe eased the awkwardness, but it also would have been too much. Red Army isn’t the chess match that is Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known, but it also isn’t as loose and forfeiting as Stephen Kessler’s Paul Williams Still Alive, both films being other examples where subjects appear to hijack the production’s course. Fetisov is not a reluctant subject or interviewee, but he does seek control, and I also get the impression he is or at least believes himself much smarter than the person behind the camera (who might also be us, the viewer).
He’s not the only one, either. Polsky interviews other members of the famous Russian Five, as the Soviet national team’s star players were called during that era, and they’re similarly grumpy and tend to reject certain topics. All the while we hear but never see the director, represented only by a cheery, curious voice with a Chicago accent and lack of clear authority on the subject matter or where he wants the narrative to go. That’s not necessarily a fault, but there is an uncomfortable artlessness to just how much the director is audible, especially in moments where he’s stumbling with the wording of a question or when the crew is on screen setting up the shot and Polsky and Fetisov can’t hold off talking about significant aspects of the story.
That particular aspect concerns the Cold War and what that term means to both Polsky and Fetisov, and the scene really draws a hard line between what their understanding of this film and its concentration is and the contrast between the filmmaker’s generalized notions of the Soviet Union from the perspective of a young American (albeit one who is Yale educated in politics and history and played hockey for the university) and Fetisov’s experiential knowledge of the place and times, which he can’t or doesn’t consider from the cliche Western vantage point and ideas. At one point Festisov responds to a prompt by pointing out that he’s not a historian. Neither is Polsky, and their exchange is not of much historical value.
There is historical entertainment to be found in Red Army, however, with the narrative of the Soviet hockey team and their global successes and defeats and eventual transplant to America and the NHL all being exciting stuff. There’s drama between teammates and between players and coaches and between players and their government and of course between East and West and there’s shallow yet usually sufficient address of things like the propaganda involved in national athletics and the simplistic mention of concepts like glasnost and perestroika. It’s fairly accessible to an audience attracted to it because they’re fans of hockey more than they are history lessons.
And that audience is treated to a fine array of footage mined from Russian, Canadian and American sources. This is a film where the archival producer, Andy Zare, and whichever editor was responsible for that material’s compilation (but not whichever editor left in all the disposable bits like a scene where a retired KGB agent is too often interrupted by his little granddaughter) deserves more credit than the director. It’s also a film where the music score (composed by Frozen’s Christophe Beck and Leo Birenberg) has to be highlighted as not bad but terribly distracting in its constancy.
Would Red Army be better with more easily managed interview subjects? I don’t know about that, but it also wouldn’t be as interesting in its formal defeat. There’s no denying Fetisov and his Red Army comrades created obstacles for Polsky that likely affected the whole of the doc and kept it from going any deeper than it does, and while the film is a loss the way it’s played is worth study. Still, if I had to choose only one documentary about a Soviet sports team during the end of the Cold War, I’d rather recommend The Other Dream Team, which lacks much of the polish of Red Army but better handles the historical context of the story of Lithuanian basketball players who played in the Olympics during and after their country was a part of the Soviet Union.
This review was originally published on March 12, 2015.