Whether or not you identify as a serious hockey fan, the documentary Red Army, which opens Friday exclusively at the Cedar Lee and casts its gaze on what is arguably the greatest dynasty in the history of sports, is worth every last penny of the matinee ticket price.
It's the USSR's famed Red Army hockey club, the storied franchise which doubled as the national team in world championship and Olympic play. Writer-director Gabe Polsky interviewed Soviet hockey's heroes — heroes most of us have heard of only if we paid really close attention during 2004's Miracle, or if we followed the ascendant Detroit Red Wings in the mid-'90s — and let them tell the stories of their experience.
The film's success, which is considerable, can be attributed both to the personality of its central character and the degree to which hockey is used as a lens to view Soviet cultural and political history in the 20th century.
We open on a bespectacled Slava Fetisov, former captain of the Red Army team and one of the greatest defensemen of all time (we're told). The screen is overrun with accolades as Fetisov flicks off his interviewer (director Polsky) and says he's busy. He'll be with him in a moment. Fetisov is a politician now, but through the course of the film, he speaks with both candor and humor about the rigors and sinister political undercurrents within the Russian system, a system designed as a kind of propaganda for the Soviet way of life. (Those who moan about the length of the MLB season or the NBA playoffs might be alarmed to learn that the elite USSR hockey club was exiled to a compound where they were forced to train at all hours of the day for 11 months of the year.)
And Fetisov was a champion both on the ice and off. He proved instrumental in unlocking the iron door which prohibited Russian players from competing in the NHL. He stood up to Russian military leaders, who threatened him regularly and beat him at least once, and who had orchestrated outrageous contracts where Russian players were compelled to pay 75 or 90 percent of their earnings back to the government, just for the privilege of playing overseas.
But there's lots of hockey-centric anthropological trivia too, plus insight into the mystery of the USSR's greatness on the ice. They used techniques from the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet, for instance, to choreograph offensive schemes predicated on constant motion and constant passing — much more so than the American game, which tends to exalt brute force and individual skill.
If nothing else, Red Army will broaden your historical perspective and encourage you to cheer — if only for 80 minutes — for players that we've always been taught to view as the bad guys, as the embodiment of our Cold War adversaries.