When it comes to hockey documentaries, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army sets a new gold standard.
The incredible 85-minute documentary covers the legendary teams from the Soviet Union and centers around Hall of Fame blueliner Slava Fetisov, one of the most unique characters whose story is astounding and perseverance and triumphs provide the perfect backdrop for the remarkable tale.
Red Army hit shelves on Tuesday and Polsky, who wrote, directed and produced the documentary, spoke with The Hockey News about the film’s creation, the Soviet style of play, his relationship with Fetisov and why hockey has never been as good as the 1987 Canada Cup.
When was the first time you had seen the Red Army team play?
Gabe Polsky: I was about 13. The truth is that I got my hands on this video of the ’72 series and I got more curious. When I was about 14 or so, somehow, I got a VHS of the 1987 Canada Cup, the final series, Canada versus Russia. That was my bible of hockey. I would literally watch that VHS tape – there’s three of them – over and over and over. Almost every day or every other day. I would just watch the tapes and write the plays down. I knew them almost by heart.
In studying the team for as long as you have, how long has the idea for the documentary been in your head?
It’s hard to say exactly. I was curious about the game and how they played and sort of fascinated by it. That hockey that I was seeing in 1987 at the Canada Cup, after I saw that and watched the NHL, for years afterwards, the reason why I kept coming back to (the Canada Cup) was because hockey was never that good (again). Even to this day, you can watch that Canada Cup and it almost hasn’t been eclipsed – that kind of hockey, what they were doing on the ice, that creativity and teamwork. I got really curious about how (the Red Army team) lived and trained and what life was like for them. My parents come from the former Soviet Union, from Ukraine, so I had some background and I got curious about all that – the lifestyle, the culture, the politics and all that. I was a political science major so all this stuff was rattling around in my head and I never thought I was going to make the film or ever really knew I was going to be a filmmaker. I had no idea until the end of my college career that I could really start thinking about all this stuff. First I had to become a filmmaker, which took years for me to figure that out. Ultimately, I’m interested in sports and culture and politics, and I just started researching this team and the story. I realized there’s so much to it. I’m not interested in making historical, Kent-Burns-style documentaries. For me to get into something it has to be riveting – this story itself is really dynamic and multifaceted. (The Red Army) story had everything in it.
Did your family ties to the former Soviet Union, your parents being from there, make it easier to get in touch with former players and people who were close to the Red Army team?
My dad knows Vladislav Tretiak. That’s how it all started. Tretiak was having his birthday, basically, in Russia, and my dad was going out there. He told me and I started thinking. I asked him when he was going and he said in a month. So I’m thinking, thinking and I said, ‘Who is going to be there?’ He said a lot of guys from the team would be there, and I started thinking about it more and I decided, well, maybe here’s my chance to see what I can get out of these guys. So I went out there with a small crew, not knowing who or how I was going to get these guys, but ultimately one led to another and I was able to finally get (Slava) Fetisov on the last day. I didn’t even know he was going to be in the documentary and for sure didn’t know he was going to be the main focus of it. It just happened that way. I met him and we started talking. He took me through his whole story.
There are a lot of interesting interactions with the players and one that sticks out right away is Fetisov, at the start of the documentary, ignorning your questions. What was it like to interview him and what about him caught you off guard that you wouldn’t have expected?
Fetisov’s the kind of guy that, for a lack of better words, is incredibly direct and blunt. But he really, with me, he opened up and was more unhinged than he normally is. I went with it. Instead of closing off and getting afraid of him and trying to veer away from conflict, I encouraged it. I wanted him to open up and speak his mind and tell his story. It took a while, he had to build trust. Initially I think he was skeptical, you know, ‘What does this American guy know about Soviet hockey? Is he coming just to do a story about the Miracle on Ice just like every other person?’ He realized that I was really trying to go deep into the story and into the hockey and philosophy of the game. The politics, the drama, all that. He was starting to build trust with me, but he treated me almost like a rookie in the locker room. He was challenging me all the time. Sometimes he would talk down on me and stuff like that. He also really had respect for what I was doing and it worked out.
There are two more interactions. The first, with Krutov, you talk about individuality. He said the players were all the same. Was it difficult to get the players to talk about themselves outside of the five-man unit?
Russians, first of all, are not the most open people. You have to earn their respect. It’s a cultural thing. My parents are from there, so I grew up kind of used to that. They’re a little bit blunt. It can be mistaken as rude, but it’s just a cultural thing. Old school Russians don’t talk about themselves. It’s not appropriate, to have an ego, to talk about how good you are and things like that. It’s really not something they do. They don’t like to pour their emotions out and open up to people. It’s not normal. So you have to figure out other ways, techniques, to get to the truth without them even saying it. With a camera you can reveal the soul of people, they don’t have to even say anything. It’s how they react, how they behave and the kind of questions you ask them. You can get a sense of them. Really, what I was trying to do is to get the aura of who these guys are and what the Russian soul is.
The other moment is with Kasatonov. He says it isn’t time to answer questions about Fetisov and the lack of support he received from Kasatonov. Do you think anyone will know the answer to why he wasn’t speaking out in support of Fetisov?
I think it’s possible. I don’t know when. I think that he’s probably right. There’s many reasons and he probably has good reason not to say anything, you know? It’s very complicated. I’m sure there are political reasons, emotional reasons. There are a lot of complicated, convoluted things going on. Especially in those days at those times. The ideology. The values. There’s just a lot going on. You read a lot of old, old books about the Soviet times and during all the Stalin purges where people were turning each other in and forced to choose between the state and the country versus protecting individuals, it was just a really crazy time. Some people were just brainwashed, you know?
You said there were some parts of Fetisov’s story you would have never known, particularly him opening up about his brother. How much of his story did you know, and how much of his story shocked or surprised you?
When I did my reading, there are some good books out there that are good references and give you the gist of it, that these players lived in a training base, their coach was a dictator, that they didn’t really like him, that ultimately they had to fight the system and Perestroika and all that. But the beauty of movies – and the beauty of anything, hockey included – is the details. It’s how the information is revealed and emotions and the way things are strung together. You can read something, but when you actually see it and see how it’s done, it becomes something very different. Just feeling their emotions, and hearing the specifics of everything, how they really felt about each other, their situation and their country and all that stuff, really kind of came to life for me. I had never met Fetisov. You rarely saw him at those times giving any interviews. But here you really get to know the person on a very intimate level. One of the most decorated athletes in the history of hockey and the Soviet Union specifically. And that was just really interesting to really get to know him on a human level, to know what motivates him and the things that he went through.
How soon after you sat down with him did you realize this is exactly who I needed for the story of this documentary to be pushed along?
I knew he was going to be one of the main characters, but as the editing process continued, I just felt like the more you focus on one person, it draws the audience in a little harder. His story naturally works to be the main storyline. It was supported by his teammates and a little bit of commentary here and there. It naturally evolved that way and I felt that it was the most encompassing and engaging story. He was sort of, in a way, a natural metaphor, not just for his teammates but for his country. He represented them, literally and figuratively.
Is there anything you wanted in there that you wish people could see that didn’t make the final cut?
I interviewed a lot of these amazing athletes. For instance, Pavel Bure, I have a two-hour interview with him that’s just incredible. Valeri Kamensky, I interviewed him for a couple hours. I interviewed Alexander Yakushev for a couple hours. They all said really incredible things. I feel terrible that I wasn’t able to use them more, but as a filmmaker you have to kill your babies sometimes. You can’t have everything. In order to make a great film, you’ve got to be tight and not put things in there just because you love them. There’s so much of that. On top of that, there’s amazing archival footage that I couldn’t put in – game highlights to crazy stuff that was going on in the Soviet Union and some of the things North American players were doing and saying. It was just very interesting times. What’s also interesting is there was such a clash of hockey philosophies – that was what was so fascinating. You had two incredibly distinct styles and it was so evident when you saw it on the ice that it made for such natural drama. It’s like martial arts: you have one guy fighting with jiu jitsu and the other who is a wrestler.
There are a couple moments where you ask Fetisov about specific games. The one that sticks out is when they win the gold medal. In the documentary, as the highlights are shown, he’s kind of silent and smiles throughout. Was that emotion before or after he told the story? Was that how he acted when you brought up moments – you could see what he felt before he even told you?
I would say that. I got him to reflect on these moments for him that meant a lot. They’re not the moments you would expect all the time. He also said when he won the Stanley Cup it was one of the greatest moments of his life. The gold medal, when he was a kid in the Soviet Union, that’s what you live for. It’s not the money, it’s not anything; it’s to win the gold medal representing your country. That was the hero. You are the hero. Especially after the loss in 1980 and finally winning it.
You said Fetisov was skeptical because he wasn’t sure if this would be yet another piece about the ‘Miracle On Ice.’ You get the sense he’s not fond of that memory. Is there anything he said about the people who come to talk to him about that game that stood out?
It was more of an emotional thing. Specifically, he’s just tired of it. He thinks it’s just overplayed and stupid – that it’s American propaganda. What you guys did for hockey, why is it the only thing you remember, this 1980 thing, when (the Red Army team) had kind of revolutionized the sport and dominated it for so many years? Why don’t people give that respect and want to study that? It’s amazing that our media is so powerful that that’s the legacy of this team.
Did you get him to talk at all about the 1972 Summit Series? If he believed in the Miracle On Ice to be, in a sense, propaganda, was there a similar feeling towards Canada’s obsession with the Summit Series?
In ’72, he was just a kid and he wanted to be just like those guys. He mentioned (Alexander) Ragulin being his idol and basically said that everyone in Russia was watching the game and really changed the way people in Russia saw the sport, seeing how the Russians matched up to the Canadians at that time. It was like a national event that everybody was watching. He said it was one of the most inspiring and memorable things in his life. I didn’t put it in because, first of all, we’ve seen that in other documentaries and it’s not exactly the story. I had a cut with the ’72 series in there and it felt superfluous – all I’m doing is making it an episode, not really a part of the story that I was telling. You can’t have everything and most people don’t really know – at least our generation – it’s not that critical. Some diehard hockey fans asked why the Summit Series wasn’t in there, and it’s because that’s not the point. I’m making a movie. You have to tell a story that’s powerful, works and tells the truth that you’re trying to tell.
What’s really important is that one of the major reasons why I made this film from a hockey standpoint is I really felt – I enjoy hockey and I played in college – but I always felt that the game can be better than it is. There’s so much potential there. It’s one of the most creative sports and I think the Soviets demonstrated the creative possibilities that there are with the game. I think we’re really just at the bottom of what we can do for the sport. When I saw the Soviets play it was so inspiring and made me feel there’s a lot to be done for the game. We should celebrate those creative thinkers out there that try and revolutionize the game and innovate. We should not be celebrating players and coaches that are simply status quo. It’s not interesting, doesn’t do the game any good and not good for the game. It’s been happening for years now. It’s a cultural thing, where people think the game is supposed to be played one way and that’s the way we do it. It’s so wrong that I can’t even begin to describe and it’s really one of the main reasons why I made this film.
For more information about Red Army, you can visit the film’s website.