Red Army (Sony Pictures Classics, PG)

red army_75The main reason why Red Army works so well is that it focuses primarily on one notable of the Red Army team, Slava Fetisov, and he’s quite a character.

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I’ve said a million times elsewhere that 2014 was an incredibly strong year for documentaries, and, alas, the Oscar-nominated ones are hardly the best that were offered. If the Oscars were 100% chosen by me, Gabe Polsky’s documentary, Red Army, about Russia’s unstoppable hockey team, would have just squeaked into the five nominated films in the Best Documentary Feature category—I’d put it at about the fifth place of 2014. (Apart from opening in limited release in 2014, it’s an alumnus of the 2014 St. Louis International Film Festival.) That’s no light praise, given its competition, and perhaps all the more interesting given that I generally have absolutely zero interest in sports.

The main reason why Red Army works so well is that it focuses primarily on one notable of the Red Army team, Slava Fetisov, and he’s quite a character. As we meet him, Polsky is cheekily slathering the screen with superimpositions regarding all of the awards Fetisov has won in his career, while Fetisov ignores the camera in favor of his cell phone, at one point giving Polsky the finger. You of course get the impression from this that Fetisov is a total asshole, and he is, but he’s also very likable. He’s not interesting despite being an asshole, he’s interesting because he’s an asshole.

And he’s also interesting because he’s had an interesting life. Not that I’m an expert on the subject (nor entirely even know how to play hockey, for that matter), but to believe it as the film tells it, Fetisov is the best player on the best hockey team in all of the history of the world, but he’s also doing all of this against a political backdrop of no small historical significance, so you can think of this as a documentary counterpart to Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, if that film were meaner-spirited, better, and about hockey.

Fetisov came to power in the Russian hockey circuit, and we were thoroughly embroiled in the Cold War, but when opportunity arose the NHL was quick to poach him. As you can imagine, this made him something of a persona non grata in his home country. The same story arc applies to many of his teammates, and in some regards we’re treated to their experience as well, but it’s always coming through Fetisov’s vantage point.

While Red Army didn’t inspire me to take up hockey, or even watch a game of it, that’s not really what it’s about, either. It handily achieves what appears to be its real goal, which is to be a biographical account of this interesting figure Slava Fetisov, and to explore the height of his fame through his eyes. | Pete Timmermann

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