Is it any wonder that our current democratic systems have turned into popularity contests? Is it any wonder that most Western politicians primarily rely on intricate advertising schemes to continuously validate themselves? For those whose eyes still blink in bewilderment at what the political landscape looks like today, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army gives us an enlightening view of the point at which everything started.
The documentary centers on the figure of Viacheslav (Slava) Fetisov, the captain and emblem of the legendary Red Army ice hockey team that dominated this sport for more than a decade, from the second half of the 1970’s to the end of the 1980’s — at the heyday of the so-called “Cold War”. This is not a documentary about hockey though, not even about the team that was, arguably, the best to ever play the game. This is not even a sports documentary (and there is nothing wrong with a sports documentary). This documentary is about war, but about a very different kind of war, for it looks at the point in time wherein warfare was changed forever. As this succinct 76 minute film finds its end, we feel that we just took a look at the birth of contemporary warfare: The clash of two propagandistic strategies, of two titanic marketing methods.
As Fetisov tells us his life-story, which is, inevitably, at the core of the Red Army team, we watch him morphing from astounding athlete to powerful politician, from a leader in the rink and an inspiration to his teammates to a high-profile bureaucrat working for the Putin administration. And his journey seems to embody not only what happened to the Soviet Union during the early 1990’s, but mainly what happened to the world once the ice of the Cold War finally melted — with one side clearly claiming victory.
But make no mistake: Fetisov is introduced to us as a douche bag, yet a very complex one at that. The first time we see him on camera, he shows himself busy, trying to look after “important business”; his eyes fixed on his phone screen, giving the finger to the interviewer, purportedly for distracting him with his questions. Just a second before meeting his finger, we have read a brief list of his numerous athletic achievements and awards. It is then that we embark with him on his incredible pilgrimage, and we’re hit by his heroic integrity, which is only comparable to his physical prowess and laudable leadership. Still, we cannot help but being skeptical, for this man, we know, works for a most questionable regime. Maybe it is a coincidence that the movie premiered at Cannes only two months after the Russian annexation of Crimea or that it was shot right at the height of this conflict . . . or that Polsky himself is an Ukrainian-American — but I think not. Of course, none of this is to blame on Fetisov (none of this is to blame on any one person . . . with the exception, perhaps, of Putin), but it does give us a little perspective, a dose of skepticism, while we are awed by this hockey hero.
It is worth noting that Polsky’s interviewing technique is extraordinarily well-developed. Fetisov’s interviews are shot at several angles; his outfits perfectly match the shot and lighting which harmoniously integrate to what is being narrated and/or reminisced. Likely, the most obvious difference is that between his politician outfit, in which he talks about his struggles with the system, framed in an orthodox medium shot with a homogeneous lighting contrasting with his more casual attire, also framed in a medium shot but this with a tungsten backlight, as he re-experiences victories and defeats while watching old videos. Each shot presents a different face and a different phase of this person’s life; each shot sums up as well different historical phases of a “War” that was framed on ice and fought on TV. We are thus constantly struck by those things that aren’t said on camera, which often prove more powerful than those that are. In every single interview, the interviewee’s body language and facial expressions are more telling than their words. Moreover, Polsky shows great sensitivity in the editing room, often leaving in frame those few seconds of silence before or after his subject elaborates their answer. These few seconds only enhance the depth of his interviews, for this is the depth that usually dwells in between silences.
But it is the other war, the one that made the template for postmodern warfare (or, as we also know it, advertising), what doubtless dwells inside this film. Two opposite ideas of what life should look like fought at the virtual battlefield of perennial representation. The mission was to propagate a way of life so as to wipe out the competition . . . the opposition.
On the Red side, the idea propagated was that great systems produce great individuals. On the Blue side, the idea propagated was that great systems were produced by great individuals. So, for this latter, the Red State was built to crush the individual. For the former, the Blue State consisted of individuals who cared for nothing but themselves. One was tyrannical. The other hollow. This war was a campaign (literally so), a crusade to show which brand, which way of life had to prevail over the other. Thus this war was all about conquering every possible arena there was to show off, to demonstrate why one was better than the other, to indisputably lay bare which was the best among the best. Sports, indeed, have always been one of the greatest arenas for showing off, both individually and collectively. Victories and defeats have been thus exploited by governmental representatives for millennia (from emperors to dictators and from technocrats to kings) as a material metaphor of what it means to be part of a group, of a system, of a brand, of a way of life. This is how “representing one’s country” became equivalent to pitching one’s nation’s lifestyle.
Polsky aptly chronicles this arc as we see each country’s efforts to hide their “dark side” so as to lure any potential ally — all possible clients. The dark side of the Red Army is perhaps the most evidently told. The same players who elevated the game into an artform were subjected to a tyrannical training system. We learn that the right hand of the head of the KGB was appointed to succeed the brains and heart of the Red Army hockey team. We thus learn that Anatoli Tarasov — the innovator behind the Russian’s artistic, symphonic style — is suddenly sacked and Viktor Tikhonov, an upstart with a volatile temper (the dictionary definition of a dictator), is forcefully designated as the Red Army’s coach. Tikhonov’s players reached perfection by training to the point in which they were “pissing blood” and at a “daily 220 heart rate,” isolated in a camp for 11 months of the year with about one free weekend a month (if they weren’t defeated) to see their families. As one of the interviewees, hockey Russian Hall of Famer Igor Romishevsky, declares (with his wife nodding in the back), the coach must “find the player’s pressure points” so as to, “like the animal trainer, [he can] get masterpieces from the beasts.” For what we know now about Communist Russia, this was not far off the treatment allotted to your average comrade.
In contrast, the dark side of the American way of life, though not so obviously showed, is much more convincingly conveyed. We see how the Soviet players were constantly lured by this system, by the freedoms they would be granted should they decide to play for the “enemy”; and then, as the players are finally signed, living inside the system, they get to experience, first hand, some typical Western xenophobia in the brutal competition and lack of solidarity among their teammates, in the parochialism of their coaches and, all in all, in the bigotry of the general population and the “liberal” media — all which grew considerably when their teams failed to get favorable results. And then, we see these dark features escalating to manifest madness, to bare bipolarity, when an all-Russian squad leads an American team, the Detroit Red Wings (catch the irony?), to win the Stanley Cup. This madness is further amplified by Fetisov’s words: “This is the American dream.” People in the street screaming his name, promising to name their next child after him (after learning, of course, how to spell it). Such a dark side can only ring entirely in the ears of those who have lived inside a consumer’s society, wherein hyperbolized romances and overnight idols are the matter of which trends are made: The American nightmare.
Red Army is much more than a documentary about hockey. If you’re a fan of this game, you will likely find a lot to enjoy. But if you’re not, you’ll likely find a whole lot as well — as was my case. This film is both a snapshot and a window to the origins of our current political situation. After watching the film, it is difficult not to look at the world around us and not to see that the idea of great individuals producing great systems is not unlike the one we have about endless emporiums begotten by visionary people — it is very difficult not to think that the birth of corporations is the culmination of individualism. And it is even harder to shake this off when we listen to statements like this: “Corporations are people.” Yes, sure, and democracies are free.