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film review

Red Army follows Russian hockey elite, including, from left, Alexei Kasatonov, Viktor Tikhonov, Vladislav Tretiak, Igor Larionov, Viacheslav (Slava) Fetisov.

In answer to Al Michaels's rhetorical question and iconic exclamation at Lake Placid in 1980, no, the Soviet hockey machine did not believe in miracles. The Soviet hockey machine believed in not being embarrassed by a ragtag collection of U.S. players for an Olympic gold medal ever again, and so the Soviet hockey machine went all boot camp after the Americans' unlikely Miracle on Ice victory – ruthlessly training its players to superhuman fitness levels and hyper-dedication extremes. Believe in miracles? The Soviet hockey machine believed in the whip, uniformity and puck-based propaganda.

Red Army is Gabe Polsky's compelling but skewed documentary on the Soviets' less-than-sporting mentality when it came to the international skating and puck-shooting game. Though the post-Placid glory years – and team captain Viacheslav (Slava) Fetisov – are the focus, ostensibly the film overviews the Soviets' shinny history from the 1950s into the early 1990s, with special emphasis on sport as a propaganda tool during an era when us-against-them passions ran very, very hot.

Polsky's Red Army begins with a black-and-white reel of Ronald Reagan, prepresidential but in fatherly, jingoistic form, as he introduces an unnamed Cold War-era film. "You and the audience are part of the conflict," he says. "How we meet the Communist challenge depends on you."

Daunting, to say the least.

The Communists were not only seen as villains, but pretty much aliens. The father of Soviet hockey was Anatoli Tarasov, an innovative bear of a coach who instituted peculiar training methods for a strict program that stressed comradeship, patriotism, a pass-first mentality and a Bolshoi-like grace and constant motion that differed greatly from the rugged individualism of the North American game. Add to that the mystery of a team built behind the Iron Curtain, and you have a stoic squad that was as strange as it was dominant.

One small problem with Red Army has to do with the title. The "Red Army" is the West's nickname for the Moscow-based team in the Soviet hockey league. There was considerable overlap of the players and coaches of the Red Army squad and the Soviet national team, but they weren't one and the same. Polsky doesn't make the distinction clear.

Another quirk has to do with the heavy screen time given to the legendary defenceman Slava Fetisov, a charismatic (if occasionally cantankerous) interview subject. Red Army is basically the story of Slava, which isn't a bad story at all given that Fetisov's own dramatic tenure mirrored the national team's late-era rise-and-fall saga.

But Polsky did not speak with Igor Larionov, a Fetisov friend (with Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov and Alexei Kasatonov) on the greatest five-man unit the game has ever known. The views of Larionov, known as "the Professor" for his erudite nature, are conspicuously absent. We do hear from defence partner Kasatonov, whose roller-coaster relationship with Fetisov is part of Red Army's tension.

Missing also is the voice of Viktor Tikhonov, the KGB-favoured coach and slave-driving, post-Tarasov tyrant whose harsh methods made him a hated figure among his players. He died late last year, but lived long enough to decline to be interviewed for the film.

Not one North American player who played against Fetisov and the Soviet squad is heard from either. And perhaps it is because Fetisov was too young to participate in the greatest East-West hockey series ever played – in 1972, against a squad of Canadian all-stars – that the Summit Series isn't even mentioned. (Canadian audiences will find that omission glaring; American crowds won't miss it.)

Still, Fetisov was the boy who dreamed of playing hockey for his country and who went on to become the youngest captain of the national team. He was also the man briefly blackballed by the country's hockey hierarchy in the late 1980s, when he expressed his desire to play in the National Hockey League.

Fetisov made it to the NHL in 1989, lasting 10 seasons with the New Jersey Devils and the Detroit Red Wings. With the Wings (coached by Scotty Bowman, one of the film's talking heads), he and comrade Larionov played with other Russians on bedazzling units that helped win the team Stanley Cups in 1997 and '98.

Red Army ends with Fetisov back in Russia, as a politician. Despite the sometimes shabby way in which he was treated by an authoritarian hockey regime, he says he "never had more fun than playing with those five guys." Once a comrade.