“More often than not, after screenings I have people come up to me and say how amazing it was. That they were never hockey fans but after seeing this movie they can appreciate what hockey’s all about and how incredible it is.”
There’s a lot in Gabe Polsky’s new film, Red Army, which has been screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.
It’s story about hockey, but it’s also a story about a country, an ideology and a culture and how a sport became intertwined with the changes all three went through with the fall of the Soviet Union.
It’s also a story about Slava Fetisov, the face and the heart of the film who steals the show with his funny, frank and combative turn in front of the camera in what Polsky revealed was a marathon six-hour session.
All of that’s in there, and it’s all worth seeing. I consider myself a hard marker when it comes to film, but this is the rare hockey doc where it’s hard to find fault.
For one, you can tell right away that Polsky – who grew up in suburban Chicago and went onto play hockey at Yale – knows and loves the game and understands Russia’s position in it.
What I enjoyed about the film – as someone who knew the stories of Fetisov and the other greats involved – was the game footage that Polsky and his team of researchers was able to dig up.
As he mentioned in an interview with Film Magazine, as quoted above, they’ve managed to capture the beauty of the game, something that’s not always easy to do in a movie like this.
The scenes of the Russian national team darting and weaving and playing tic-tac-toe against NHLers are remarkable, as are those of the Russian Five when they joined the Detroit Red Wings in the mid-90s and flourished.
Shown one after the other after the other, the sequences are oddly chaotic and organized at the same time, capturing what made that style so unique.
At one point, the Wings legendary former coach Scotty Bowman says simply that he didn’t even know what to tell them other than to keep doing what they were doing.
“It was like watching aliens on the ice,” Polsky explained. “You could almost compare it to different styles of martial arts: one is karate, one is jiu-jitsu. It was a revolution in creativity in hockey and in sport.”
A film like this, which tracks Fetisov’s personal triumphs and tragedies as the captain of the Red Army team, could have potentially been bogged down by the material. Some of it’s weighty. But some of it’s also quite amusing, interjecting levity into a story that at a base level is about how brutal and inhuman the Soviet system often was to its players.
It’s a film that transcends hockey. Non-hockey fans – like the one I saw it with – will likely enjoy it as much as diehards, which isn’t something you can say about many documentaries about the game.
Sony has the North American distribution rights, and I was told there should be a wide release by January of next year. There was already Oscar buzz around the film after it screened well at Cannes and Telluride, and after the reception at the TIFF premiere on Tuesday, that’s sure to build.
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