A couple of weeks ago, it was my pleasure to host a panel at the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco following a sneak preview of Red Army, a film now playing in local theaters and deserving of your attention. I was captivated by the chronicle of one of the greatest eras in hockey history that is rarely spoken about, even in hockey circles, and of its amazing connection to social and political changes in the world that continue to resonate to this day.
The film, made by former Yale University hockey player and Chicago native Gabe Polsky, is part sports documentary, part historical chronicle, and part social commentary that should prove to be a fascinating piece of entertainment for anyone, regardless of whether hockey is appreciated or not. It is a story that is larger than sport.
On Monday night, during the Sharks-Calgary radio broadcast, we aired a portion of my interview with Mr. Polsky about his film. You can find a podcast of the interview here.
Usually, when you put hockey together with a dramatic story that is bigger than the sport, you think of the incredible story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal in Lake Placid, which surely can be connected to all of these themes. However, as the title indicates, Red Army is the story of the team that lost one of those fabled games in Lake Placid – the national team of the Soviet Union – and the amazing connection between the assertion of the star players’ individuality and the historical events that saw the hammer and sickle replaced by the white, red, and blue tricolor of the Russian Federation.
In San Jose, we have an amazing connection to part of this story, as two of the featured players in the drama were integral parts of the early development of the Sharks franchise: Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. But while these two greats are not interviewed and take a back seat in the film to the experiences of defenseman Slava Fetisov, it is the same story, the same human drama, and another example of how much respect these players deserve.
For me, the hockey story is intensely interesting, but the human story is even more fascinating. The subjugation of these elite athletes in the name of the Communist system obviously did not work in the long run. But within the dictatorial world of that system, the artists-cum-hockey players enjoyed enough freedom to express their creativity that they could not possibly have expressed in the world of politics or business. Ultimately, as human beings, they sought to gain the freedom to live the way that they wanted to, and within that sphere, the Fetisov-Larionov-Makarov rebellion against the system serves as a microcosm for the larger events happening in Russia at that time. It allows us to understand Russia and Russians better, something that is certainly necessary in these uncertain times.
This film allows us a close look at the beautiful artistry of the Central Red Army hockey team, essentially from the moment of the 1980 Olympic loss to the U.S. to the early 1990’s, when some of the greatest hockey in history was played outside the confines of the National Hockey League. It is a story about creative expression, fighting dictatorship, and ultimately being a large motivator of change in a society. That battle continues to be waged today.
There are some things that I wished were in the film that were not. As San Jose Sharks people, it would have been nice to see a bit more of the Larionov-Makarov part of this story. But they are as intimately part of it even without holding a major role in the film, which was really told from Fetisov’s point of view. That kept the film focused.
Unlike many appearances of these great players in formal interviews, the film really humanizes Fetisov, opening a window into his soul and that of his teammates. It tells of his own personal tragedies, including the loss of his brother, the damaged relationship with his best friend, and his many triumphs, which are splashed onto the screen through the clever use of graphics.
As you watch the film, you’ll be struck by its photography, its humor, and its ability to weave different areas of society into one consistent story. In that way, it is reminiscent of the film Senna, which accomplished some of that in its depiction of the 3-time Formula One World Champion Ayrton Senna, but in many ways, this film does a more effective job of accomplishing that challenging task.
In many oppressive societies, the related areas of sport and art are the places where individuals can really be individual. It’s an area where one can escape from the bad parts of life, and live in a world where one can feel free. It’s why some of the most beautiful works in the classical repertoire were written by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, why some of the greatest theater and ballet companies have been in oppressive societies, and why, under the whim of a brutal dictator like Joseph Stalin, a creative genius like Anatoly Tarasov could build the Soviet program into a world powerhouse.
One other thing that comes out is the role of the individual within the team concept. The players on this team were not robots. They were amazing athletes who were fully invested in working together, and what they produced on the ice was pure art.
Yes, there is no “I” in team. But there is an “M,” and there is an “E,” and that spells “ME.” Within the concept of dedicating oneself to a team, the individual is still very important, and he deserves to reap the benefits of what he has produced and to be able to enjoy it without interference. That, in many ways, is what Fetisov and his teammates were fighting for, and it’s something that anyone in America can fully understand as they enjoy this terrific film.
Red Army is playing now at Camera 12 in downtown San Jose, at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, and Regency Cinemas in San Rafael. It has been acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival, and it has made a lot of people who aren’t hockey fans interested in sampling the sport. Go see it today!