The Soviet Union produced magnificent hockey players, even as its citizens starved and the Cold War wobbled toward a welcome if uncertain fizzle-out. Gabe Polsky’s ‘Red Army’ does an energising, often hilarious job of foregrounding the symbolism of these clean-cut men, shining examples of a superiority that, on the ice, was no mere bluff. Via bizarre footage and masculine choral music, we watch youngsters tumbling through arduous regimes, learning from a poetic and inspired coach, the legendary Anatoli Tarasov. We see the team participate in the mythic showdown at Lake Placid’s 1980 Winter Games, at which the superhuman Russian squad fell, embarrassingly, to an upstart US team that eventually claimed gold.
‘Red Army’ transcends a typical sports doc when it takes on the schism of heroism at home versus a natural gravitation toward Western freedoms. Defections, along with the elaborate style of Russian play, weren’t met warmly by North American hockey fans. (‘They’re not here for the Bolshoi Ballet,’ one announcer snipes.) Yet these athletes find a way, despite moments of wounded national pride, to push through to dignity, climaxing with the surreal sight of an arena of Detroit Red Wings fans cheering on their all-Soviet A team. Polsky is sometimes awkward in his questioning, but he spurs his interviewees to serious reflection and even nostalgia.