Sport is a natural metaphor for war. Two sides in two colors face each other on a field, each with their pride and their physical safety at risk. Their leaders scheme plans of attack, drawing arrows toward the enemy’s flank. And backing the teams in the stands — or, more often, on TV — those of us too frail (or lazy) to fight ourselves scream, hiss, and cheer.
But there are times when sport isn’t a metaphor — it’s simply war, a skirmish of ideals. Think Jesse Owens running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Nelson Mandela supporting the Springboks, and the fascination around the sheltered North Korean team and its hired Chinese “fans” in the 2010 World Cup. Or the longest battle of them all: the Soviet Union’s rival-crushing Cold War hockey team, which between 1978 and 1992 won three Olympic golds and eight World Championships. On and off the ice, the Russians triggered such panic that Ronald Reagan pleaded with the American team to win for the sake of global politics. “They’re a microcosm of their society,” Reagan insisted of the Soviet team, and if they triumphed, so did communism. If we won, of course, so did everything decent in the world. When U.S. coach Herb Brooks managed to win a game, he called then-president Carter and beamed, “It proves our way to live is the proper way.”
Gabe Polsky’s fascinating and funny documentary Red Army opens with Reagan’s bellicose speech, and tracks how both countries fought their PR wars on the rink. Polsky couldn’t have scored a better centerpiece subject than Soviet team captain Slava Fetisov — even if, at the start, we’re not sure the brusque Fetisov will tell him a damned thing. When Polsky begins to film him, Fetisov, still imposing and broad-shouldered at 56, makes Polsky pause while he takes a phone call, dismissing the director as cavalierly as he might a barista at Starbucks. Polsky fills the time by flooding the screen with a list of Fetisov’s awards and achievements, from the gold medals to the Order of Lenin to the asteroid named in his honor. We get it. We’ll wait.
Fetisov rewards our patience with an interview that surprises with its candid emotion. Watching him tear up about how hockey and politics collided in his life is at once terrifying and awesome, like seeing an iceberg melt. The way he tells it, he had no choice but to become a hockey god. Growing up, three families shared his 400-square-foot apartment. There was no running water and no space to relax — he had to go outside to play. Which, in freezing-cold Moscow, meant hockey, not just because of the winter weather, but because in Russia, hockey meant everything. The army ran the hockey club and touted it with posters screaming, “Real men play hockey! Cowards don’t play hockey!” and the even more brusquely militaristic “Serve your country!”
Red Army is a riveting look behind the Iron Curtain. Fetisov’s beloved first coach, Anatoli Tarasov, trained his athletes with tactics from the best of Russian culture: the Bolshoi ballet, chess, and gymnastics. Just as importantly, the team was steeped in selfless collectivism. Though Fetisov was the star, he’ll never admit it. “We were the same,” he smiles, suggesting a five-man puck-passing unit that shared one mind. (By contrast, he found the NHL players disorderly and ego-driven.) Fetisov’s second coach, however, represented the worst of Russia. Viktor Tikhonov, an army general hired by the chief of the KGB, treated his players like conscripts. They lived in barracks 11 months a year, practiced until they pissed blood, and were denied permission to see their families. If the team traveled abroad, Coach Tikhonov was so fearful of defections that he locked up their passports. And with good reason: The first time the Soviet team saw a North American grocery store, they were agape. Fruits and vegetables in winter! This must be paradise.
When Fetisov was invited to play for the New Jersey Devils, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Alas, the Russian government refused on his behalf. Fetisov was furious, but simply speaking out against being treated like property was enough to get him punished and shunned, even by his teammates. The country’s propagandistic hero became its prisoner. (And, one suspects, Fetisov would have had it even worse if he weren’t so famous.)
Our inclination, naturally, is to root for Fetisov to champion the American way of life. And he did eventually attain stateside Stanley Cup glory, with the Detroit Red Wings. But Red Army has laid the groundwork for something more complex: It reveals the strengths of the Soviet athletic program and the weaknesses of our own — a star-driven, money-flaunting braggart that, er, shares the same flaws as capitalism.
We are our sports teams, after all. And with Fetisov eventually returning to Russia to become Vladimir Putin’s Minister of Sport, the score is still tied.