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According to Ralph: Seeing Red

by Ralph Strangis / Dallas Stars

I have struggled more with this piece’s first sentence than perhaps with any I’ve penned in some time, and so it is merely an admission and not a lead. I assume Gabe Polsky spent considerable time then sorting through the myriad tales and complex story lines, and the miles of rare images and compelling testimony, and that he dedicated much thought with head in hands to all the geopolitical and sociological ramifications wrapped in and around every part of all of it before ever making the first edit in his film “RED ARMY”.

The story, told without narration but by the voices of those who were in and around the USSR’s Central Red Army team during the 1970’s and 1980’s principally follows the journey of Soviet defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov from boyhood, through national acclaim and world recognition and ultimately to his becoming the first Russian citizen to leave his country with a multi-entrance working visa to play in the NHL.

With an important and courageous story to tell, and armed with great sincerity, a sharp wit and the ability to project feelings without saying a word, ‘Slava’ Fetisov is by every definition the perfect leading man. Polsky’s choices of showing the unguarded moments, the silent reflections and subtle reactions draw us even closer to his hero. We root for Feitsov.

“RED ARMY” tells the story of stark cultural differences during a time of great world unrest. For the Soviets, Sport and Military were linked, players were plucked from their homes as boys, signed to 25 year contracts, housed in barracks 11 months out of 12, and told when they were to retire. They trained differently, played the game unconventionally, and beat everybody, pretty much every time. Rare footage of players tumbling on the ice in full gear under Anatoli Tarasov’s upbeat and spirited guidance show the coach’s innovation and belief in creating brotherhood among his players, and upon his dismissal we see Viktor Tikhonov’s tyrannical reign through fear and intimidation.

And so it is in many ways in the film the depiction of the struggle of the old against the new; Tikhonov is on the watch ironically as Glasnost and Perestroika are introduced to the Soviet Union, Russian defectors get to the NHL only to find prejudice and on-ice belligerence waiting for them in the promised land, and for Slava Fetisov too, the suffering ended is met by more suffering to be endured.

The political climate in the world is different now, certainly things have changed in the Soviet Union, and “RED ARMY” allows us to draw our own conclusions about that. And the NHL is now where the best players play, regardless of where they come from, and how they were trained. Give Scotty Bowman a nod for some of that, and he is featured in the film.

And although there is still pushback, still the fight of the old against the new, the conventional against the innovation, our way against yours, when you look at an NHL game now, you see the influences of those who paid a great price to get here. “RED ARMY” is about sport and brotherhood, about courage and fear, about nations and ways of life. It is an enormous pile to sort through and a lot to absorb, but it is a film that’s both history and spectacle and deserving of your attention.

If you are in Dallas, be sure to catch this film at Angelika Film Center.

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