Few moments in Cold War mythology were as thrilling as the U.S. hockey team’s 1980 Olympic defeat of a superior club of Soviet players who personified the skill and collective beauty the communist world held up as a buttress to the freedoms and capitalist temptations of the West.
The Americans won the gold medal in Lake Placid, in a fairy tale known as the Miracle on Ice. Heroes were born, advertising contracts signed. But thousands of miles away behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet players returned home to disbelief and shame. So entwined was hockey with patriotism that the defeat left a mark and exposed the deep strands of national pride prevalent today in the defiant politics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The new documentary “Red Army,” directed by Gabe Polsky, is as much an intriguing glimpse at the Cold War as it is a reminder that the ill will between Moscow and Washington lives on in Putin’s deadly interference in Ukraine. Russia, as it was decades ago, is an unsettled giant reeling from falling gas prices, economic sanctions, an imploding ruble and a suspicion that outsiders are plotting its demise at a time when its grand narratives of redemption and destiny have been strained.
Polsky’s film touches on those dynamics, but his focus is on a band of men who trained like boxers and skated like ballerinas on what was considered the best hockey team in the world. The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Polsky, who grew up playing hockey in Chicago, said in an interview that he was fascinated by the power and precision of Soviet hockey and how much of its style emanated from the communist ideal of the collective over the individual.
“It was a creative revolution how they played as a team,” he said, comparing the punishing, aggressive manner of North American hockey to the exactness and fluidity of the Soviets. “It was so beautiful. When you do it so beautifully and so well, it becomes evident. It comes from this Russian soul, this sadness.”
The embodiment of that spirit was Slava Fetisov, who made the Red Army hockey squad, an affiliate of the Soviet military, when he was a youth. He went on to win two Olympic gold medals and two Stanley Cup championships. Fetisov is the film’s heart, an aging athlete with cranky flair who endured the fall of communism, played professional hockey in the U.S. and returned to Russia to later become Putin’s minister of sport. His odyssey drifts on anger, disillusionment, wealth, fame and nostalgia for his old teammates and the system that made them play as one.
“I played 23 professional years,” Fetisov says in the film. “One-thousand-eight-hundred-plus games. I never had more fun than playing with those five guys, together.”
Fetisov and the other key players – Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov and Alexei Kasatonov – made the Soviet national team, living as a kind of dysfunctional family under Viktor Tikhonov, a tyrannical coach imposed by the KGB. After their 1980 defeat by the Americans, the players were sequestered from their families and training intensified. The Soviet team won gold medals in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. But the players despised Tikhonov and, like their nation, grew disenchanted as the Soviet Union buckled and dissolved.
The Soviet government proposed that its national players could play in the U.S. and Canada, providing they returned most of their salaries to Moscow. Fetisov refused. He was threatened with jail in Siberia and summoned to the Defense Ministry. But the Soviets, perhaps sensing the tug of history, relented and he was granted a visa and allowed to play for the New Jersey Devils and keep his salary.
“Nobody liked me in the U.S.,” he says. Soviet players early on were jeered at and – separated from their teammates – struggled to adjust to the fist fights and individualism that defined North American hockey. “There was no style,” he adds, looking to the camera. “Now, you’re a loser?” The West had freedom and baubles but not the passion of home, yet home had changed into a land ruled by oligarchs and corruption.
“Country’s got no heroes. Got no system. No structure. Nothing. Everyone runs around trying to get something,” Fetisov said of his homeland years after tanks swept through Red Square. “We kind of forgot about patriotism. We lost something. We lost our pride. We lost our soul.”
“Red Army” captures the eccentricities of ambition and conjures a time of Ronald Reagan, ballistic missiles, Mikhail Gorbachev, an era when sports were extensions of politics and enemies were cleverly caricatured and clearly defined. Polsky, who also co-directed the feature film “The Motel Life” starring Emile Hirsch in 2012, spent 10 days shooting in Russia, mining state archival video footage and treading deeper onto a country’s psyche. He said he felt welcomed.
“These are people who want to be proud,” said Polsky, who showed the film at Cannes and other festivals. “My movie shows what happens to these people’s souls. They were lost, in a way. … Putin wants to reclaim some of that past prestige. In order to build his state he needs a proud and patriotic people. He understands the power of sports. He spent a ton of money on the (2014) Winter Olympics in Sochi, and Russia did win the medal count.”
Putin these days is ensconced in crises and is facing anger from a Russian populace that for years has been infatuated with his rhetoric and swagger. Some analysts speak of a new Cold War sprung from a West encroaching on the boundaries and insecurities of a venal Russia that in many ways clings to past glories at an uneasy time of global change.
Fetisov – at one point he shoots Polsky the middle finger – has a bit of swagger too. He found redemption in the U.S. in 1997 when, reunited with his old Soviet teammates, he won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings.
But there is a moment in “Red Army” when the bravado fades. Fetisov, now a Russian senator, is asked about the 1980 Olympics. The camera tightens on him. His face hardens, his eyes water. He says nothing, as if a man studying a fine tapestry and coming across an unexpected flaw.