Friday, February 10, 2017

Red Army

Slava Petislov seems quite put out in his interviews with RED ARMY director Gabe Polsky.  He's not the most agreeable subject.  He stops to look at his cell phone, answers questions obliquely.   He even gives Polsky (and the viewer?) that dreaded finger gesture.  He behaves like a spoiled celebrity at times, a tired old man at others.  Some would say that the world famous ice hockey defenseman, who played for the Kontinental Hockey League (Red Army League) in Moscow during the Cold War years and later with the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings in the NHL, has earned the right to act as such.  As a player and later as a coach, he won three Stanley Cups.

The road there was paved with punishingly difficult practices under a martinet of a coach named Viktor Tikhanov.  Neither Slava or any of his teammates have anything nice to say about him.  When the Red Army Team was handed a dramatic loss by the Americans in the 1980 Olympics, well, things only got worse.  His players were sequestered away from pretty much everyone and everything for eleven months of the year.   Like being shipped to Siberia!  Tikhanov is portrayed as a heartless machine, a real asset to the iron fist Communist regime he served.  In some old clips, he argues that his methods produced the best team in the world, backed up by multiple championships and Olympic gold medals.  His team operated as a unit; the five men worked as a single-minded collective.  They were not singled out the way someone like Bobby Orr would've been in the States.  The team reflected their homeland's socialist mantra.

When Slava attempted to leave the U.S.S.R. to play for the NHL, his coach conspired with government officials to block him.  When he finally quit the Red Army team out of great frustration, he was ostracized from all corners and even threatened with imprisonment.  His experiences, recounted by himself and his wife, sound like something out of a Soviet thriller paperback. 

But unlike some others, Slava never defected to the West.  He felt it a betrayal to his country.  His loyalty was strong.  He did his years in the U.S., eventually being reunited with the other four players (known as The Green Unit during their years in Russia) who had a very stylish method of play.  Like the Bolshoi Ballet.  This was a strategy at odds with the other players and Western fans.  But eventually their old magic came back, winning over coaches and spectators and scaring the hell out of their opponents.  One amusing piece shows Wayne Gretzky lamenting that the Russians were impossible to beat.

But Slava would return to his country, even assuming a position of Minister of Sport, to which he was appointed by Vladimir Putin. Later he would hold post in the Federal Assembly.

Slava Petislov recounts all this in what comes off as a slightly irritated demeanor, though you can see some wistfulness as he recalls the death of his brother and his long estrangement from fellow defenseman Alexai Kasatanov.  There are some brief interviews with the other team members, who also are amusingly gruff.  Tiknahov refused to participate with this 2015 film.

RED ARMY is a fascinating, compact documentary that deftly assembles game footage, interviews, and graphics to give a sort of Reader's Digest version of a particular time in history, pre- and post-Glasnost (described by Slava as meaningless term, as "openess" with the West was not truly beholden behind the Iron Curtain).   The film works both as a sports and political doc.

My favorite bit, though, is a newspaper clipping that reads "Slava signs pact with N.J. Devils!"  God bless sportswriters.  And Polsky too, who gets to fire a dig back at his interviewee when he dismisses him as a California boy.

"I'm from Chicago."


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