The 1980 Winter Olympics are remembered by Americans as the time when a group of scrappy college athletes defeated the all-powerful Soviet team in the semi-finals of the hockey tournament. It was one of the greatest upsets in sports history, and the story was turned into both a TV movie and a feature film. There are two sides to every story, and Red Army, produced, written and directed by Gabe Polsky, tells the tale of how the Soviet hockey team got so good.
In the years after World War II, Joseph Stalin noticed how the masses had become obsessed by hockey. He decided to create a national team as way of spreading communist propaganda. Tryouts were held, and thousands of young boys showed up. The lines to get into the arenas were miles long, but Russians are used to standing in lines, so it was no big deal.
Anatoly Tarasov was appointed head coach, and by all accounts, he was well loved by the players. Tarasov was a brilliant tactician who used elements of ballet and chess in his training and strategy sessions. The play of the Red Army team was a sight to behold. Hockey has never been described as “the beautiful game” the way soccer has, but Tarasov made that way. It more like the Bolshoi Ballet and less like Slap Shot.
Prior to the 1980 Winter Olympics, Tarasov was fired after he angered Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Tarasov’s replacement was a high ranking KGB official named Viktor Tikhonov. The players hated him. Tikhonov lived down to the stereotypes of the KGB and Soviet officials. That being that they are cold, cruel, heartless bastards.
The team was sequestered for eleven months of the year. When they were at training camp, they had little contact with their families and friends. The training sessions were brutal in execution and marathon in length. Tikhonov sounds like some college and pro coaches. He would have made a great crossfit trainer.
The breakout star of Red Army is former defenseman and team captain, Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov. At first, Fetisov comes across as a bit of a dickski, but as the film went on, I started to feel a great deal of empathy for him and his family. It seems that the stories I was told as a youngster about how Soviet officials treated the citizens were true. Not that I ever doubted them.
Red Army, produced by Jerry Weintraub, Werner Herzog, and Liam Satre-Meloy, is told in the “talking heads” documentary style, but with a subject this engaging, that’s all you really need. One of the most telling things is when the person being interviewed refuses to talk, or feels that Gabe Polsky has asked an impertinent question. It seems that you can take the people out of Communist Russia, but you can’t take Communist Russia out of the people.