By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Gabe Polsky On RED ARMY

1Now that Super Bowl XLIX is history, can we talk about a sport that’s really gripping, like hockey? Sure, football is about strategy and physical prowess, and your heart might indeed pound if you’re actually in the stadium close enough to the action, but television, with its mandate to sell commercials, has stretched the average duration of games to back-numbing length. Whereas hockey is not only about strategy and athleticism, it is fast, fast, fast. The competing players zooming across the ice combine precision skating with a ferocious concentration on the puck–which, at only three inches in diameter, can move up to 100 miles per hour, making all that blather about Deflategate even more laughable.

But as the thrillingly kinetic new documentary Red Army shows, there’s another, deeper dimension to the sport that sets it apart from American football: not all that long ago, hockey was emblematic of the Cold War struggle between the USA and the USSR. The movie tells the little known behind-the-scenes story of the Soviet Union’s state-sponsored world-champion hockey team, a nearly unbeatable marvel of speed, agility, and unity. There’s a charismatic “leading man,” fabled defenseman Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, recipient of dozens of awards and honors. There’s a legendary mentor and sage, coach Anatoly Tarasov, who revolutionized the game by introducing elements of ballet and chess into the training regimen and playbook. And there’s even a villain one can love to hate, the KGB bureaucrat Viktor Tikhonov, who, as Tarasov’s replacement, imposed ever more draconian regulations on his supremely dedicated team, for whom winning was synonymous with serving their country.

Director-writer-producer Gabe Polsky may have been destined to bring this narrative to the big screen. The American-born son of Soviet émigrés is fluent in Russian, got his first pair of skates when he was just out of kindergarten, and played hockey zealously throughout his school years, culminating at Yale University. At which point, he says, “I realized I wasn’t going to be a pro, and had to find a new passion. I had a college roommate who was shooting edgy videos, and I thought I could come up with a few subjects myself.” The filmmaker, who was in his native city during the 50th Chicago International Film Festival to support the Sony Picture Classics release, agreed with my assessment that you don’t have to be a sports maven to be captivated by Red Army. “Many people who have come out of these screenings,” he observed, “are people like you. My goal was to make a film that is not only for hockey fans, but is also about complex things like culture, history, and politics. But I also wanted to reach way beyond the academic [aspects of the documentary form]. It was an exciting challenge.”

The film two took years to make, start to finish. I asked him if he faced any hassles while on location in Russia. He replied, “I had a contact who knew one of the players. No one knew what I was doing there, exactly; because I had a tiny crew and speak Russian, we weren’t [perceived as] threatening. Slava didn’t know I wanted him to be the lead ‘character’ in the story, but I kept on bugging him.”

It’s certainly clear from the film that Polsky can be tenacious. Some of the funniest moments are when he and his subject seem to be on the edge of their own international conflict, with Polsky off-camera lobbing questions that at times seem surprisingly disingenuous, and which Slava swats back as if shooing some buzzing pest—that is, when he can even be bothered to get off his cell phone to respond. I commented on Polsky’s vivid audio presence, and asked him if he had been deliberately aiming to get a rise out of Fetisov.

“In a way, in the movie at least, I represent sort of the everyday person, leading with questions that will hopefully get to facts the audience wants to know. And part of it is just my personality, which can be confrontational enough. Part of it is also that you need to feel a guy out, to psych him into revealing something that’s meaningful, and that you can build on from there. Slava initially wanted to allow me only 15 minutes, and wound up that first time giving an interview that lasted five hours. But everything I did was by choice,” he insisted, quickly adding with a smile and the hint of a wink, “and if at times it seems, as you point out, like I’m bordering on naïve–well, sometimes you just have to sacrifice yourself for the film.”

That cheek and initiative and sly sense of fun pervades Red Army, from the way Polsky handles archival footage (there’s a black-and-white sequence featuring a Soviet children’s choir chirping a patriotic song, while an animated hammer-and-sickle bounces above the subtitles), to the colorful end credits, which are studded with detailed new takes on old propaganda posters. But there’s plenty to inspire serious discussion as well, beginning with the Soviet hockey team’s incarnation as an intended symbol of Communism’s superiority over capitalism. As the film at times painfully shows, these resilient players basically turned their entire lives over to Mother Russia. By design they were not “professionals.” Pros are barred from the Olympics, so the state built a consistently winning team from its compulsorily enlisted military forces in order to harvest that Olympic gold year after year. Far from what professional athletes earned in the West, the Russian amateurs lived off their soldiers’ pay, laboring ceaselessly and seldom seeing their families.

As forthcoming as Slava is, a few of his old comrades provide equally riveting testimony. The movie examines the tight bond between Fetisov and the four others who comprised that part of the team that the media dubbed “the Russian Five”—Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov. These men moved as one, demonstrating the virtues of cooperation and vigilant support over any individual grab for glory. Some of them, increasingly chafing under coach Tikhonov’s oppressive edicts, would, like Fetisov, later defect to the US to turn pro and play in the NHL. But those life choices brought their own set of problems.

Polsky’s respect for the character of these men, their idealism, their sacrifices, and their remarkable achievements is manifest throughout Red Army. And although he doesn’t belabor it, he also sees a connection between how the Soviets turned sports into propaganda, and what goes on in Russia today. “Propaganda posters were a big part of that era,” he says. “They were created to emphasize the popularity of hockey, and to inspire the populace in dramatic ways. That’s part of what Vladimir Putin is doing now. Look at how much emphasis he places on sports–as spectacle in Sochi, and as personal lifestyle [in how he portrays himself in the media].” Recognizing that relations between the US and Russia sadly once again are very strained, Polsky is thankful to all the Russians who helped him create Red Army, particularly Fetisov: “I am grateful he is supportive of the film, doing press on its behalf. We both feel it has the potential to influence people.”

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The Gronvall Report

GABE POLSKY ON RED ARMY

By Andrea Gronvall

 

 

Now that Super Bowl XLIX is history, can we talk about a sport that’s really gripping, like hockey? Sure, football is about strategy and physical prowess, and your heart might indeed pound if you’re actually in the stadium close enough to the action, but television, with its mandate to sell commercials, has stretched the average duration of games to back-numbing length. Whereas hockey is not only about strategy and athleticism, it is fast, fast, fast. The competing players zooming across the ice combine precision skating with a ferocious concentration on the puck–which, at only three inches in diameter, can move up to 100 miles per hour, making all that blather about Deflategate even more laughable.

 

But as the thrillingly kinetic new documentary Red Army shows, there’s another, deeper dimension to the sport that sets it apart from American football: not all that long ago, hockey was emblematic of the Cold War struggle between the USA and the USSR. The movie tells the little known behind-the-scenes story of the Soviet Union’s state-sponsored world-champion hockey team, a nearly unbeatable marvel of speed, agility, and unity. There’s a charismatic “leading man,” fabled defenseman Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, recipient of dozens of awards and honors. There’s a legendary mentor and sage, coach Anatoly Tarasov, who revolutionized the game by introducing elements of ballet and chess into the training regimen and playbook. And there’s even a villain one can love to hate, the KGB bureaucrat Viktor Tikhonov, who, as Tarasov’s replacement, imposed ever more draconian regulations on his supremely dedicated team, for whom winning was synonymous with serving their country.

Director-writer-producer Gabe Polsky may have been destined to bring this narrative to the big screen. The American-born son of Soviet émigrés is fluent in Russian, got his first pair of skates when he was just out of kindergarten, and played hockey zealously throughout his school years, culminating at Yale University. At which point, he says, “I realized I wasn’t going to be a pro, and had to find a new passion. I had a college roommate who was shooting edgy videos, and I thought I could come up with a few subjects myself.” The filmmaker, who was in his native city during the 50th Chicago International Film Festival to support the Sony Picture Classics release, agreed with my assessment that you don’t have to be a sports maven to be captivated by Red Army. “Many people who have come out of these screenings,” he observed, “are people like you. My goal was to make a film that is not only for hockey fans, but is also about complex things like culture, history, and politics. But I also wanted to reach way beyond the academic [aspects of the documentary form]. It was an exciting challenge.”

 

The film two took years to make, start to finish. I asked him if he faced any hassles while on location in Russia. He replied, “I had a contact who knew one of the players. No one knew what I was doing there, exactly; because I had a tiny crew and speak Russian, we weren’t [perceived as] threatening. Slava didn’t know I wanted him to be the lead ‘character’ in the story, but I kept on bugging him.”

 

It’s certainly clear from the film that Polsky can be tenacious. Some of the funniest moments are when he and his subject seem to be on the edge of their own international conflict, with Polsky off-camera lobbing questions that at times seem surprisingly disingenuous, and which Slava swats back as if shooing some buzzing pest—that is, when he can even be bothered to get off his cell phone to respond. I commented on Polsky’s vivid audio presence, and asked him if he had been deliberately aiming to get a rise out of Fetisov.

 

“In a way, in the movie at least, I represent sort of the everyday person, leading with questions that will hopefully get to facts the audience wants to know. And part of it is just my personality, which can be confrontational enough. Part of it is also that you need to feel a guy out, to psych him into revealing something that’s meaningful, and that you can build on from there. Slava initially wanted to allow me only 15 minutes, and wound up that first time giving an interview that lasted five hours. But everything I did was by choice,” he insisted, quickly adding with a smile and the hint of a wink, “and if at times it seems, as you point out, like I’m bordering on naïve–well, sometimes you just have to sacrifice yourself for the film.”

 

That cheek and initiative and sly sense of fun pervades Red Army, from the way Polsky handles archival footage (there’s a black-and-white sequence featuring a Soviet children’s choir chirping a patriotic song, while an animated hammer-and-sickle bounces above the subtitles), to the colorful end credits, which are studded with detailed new takes on old propaganda posters. But there’s plenty to inspire serious discussion as well, beginning with the Soviet hockey team’s incarnation as an intended symbol of Communism’s superiority over capitalism. As the film at times painfully shows, these resilient players basically turned their entire lives over to Mother Russia. By design they were not “professionals.” Pros are barred from the Olympics, so the state built a consistently winning team from its compulsorily enlisted military forces in order to harvest that Olympic gold year after year. Far from what professional athletes earned in the West, the Russian amateurs lived off their soldiers’ pay, laboring ceaselessly and seldom seeing their families.

 

As forthcoming as Slava is, a few of his old comrades provide equally riveting testimony. The movie examines the tight bond between Fetisov and the four others who comprised that part of the team that the media dubbed “the Russian Five”—Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov. These men moved as one, demonstrating the virtues of cooperation and vigilant support over any individual grab for glory. Some of them, increasingly chafing under coach Tikhonov’s oppressive edicts, would, like Fetisov, later defect to the US to turn pro and play in the NHL. But those life choices brought their own set of problems.

 

Polsky’s respect for the character of these men, their idealism, their sacrifices, and their remarkable achievements is manifest throughout Red Army. And although he doesn’t belabor it, he also sees a connection between how the Soviets turned sports into propaganda, and what goes on in Russia today. “Propaganda posters were a big part of that era,” he says. “They were created to emphasize the popularity of hockey, and to inspire the populace in dramatic ways. That’s part of what Vladimir Putin is doing now. Look at how much emphasis he places on sports–as spectacle in Sochi, and as personal lifestyle [in how he portrays himself in the media].” Recognizing that relations between the US and Russia sadly once again are very strained, Polsky is thankful to all the Russians who helped him create Red Army, particularly Fetisov: “I am grateful he is supportive of the film, doing press on its behalf. We both feel it has the potential to influence people.”

 

 

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