Playing Politics With Red Army Documentary Director Gabe Polsky

On the surface, Gabe Polsky’s superb new documentary is about the legendary Red Army hockey team, one of the most dominant collection of athletes ever assembled — in any sport. At the height of the Cold War, in the late 1970s through the late 1980s, the team swept away opponents with ease. They won eight world championships and three Olympic gold medals, in 1976, 1984, and 1988. Only the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. team denied them a complete sweep.

The team’s style was unique, with an intricate, swirling passing scheme that left defenders tangled in their skates. They were driven by a merciless taskmaster of a coach, Viktor Tikhonov, whose unorthodox training methods are seen in rare archival footage.

But Red Army is not a hockey film, nor a sports doc. It’s the emotional story of the people and culture of the Soviet Union set against the tensions of East/West relations when the propaganda value of the powerhouse team helped obscure the decline of Soviet society. And it centers on a loose cannon of a character, team captain Slava Fetisov, one of the greatest players in history who was at times a national hero, at times a political enemy.

Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“People in North America don’t really know the Russian people and their history on a human level,” Polsky said while discussing the documentary with The Credits. “This film makes it easy to understand the Russian soul. That’s partly why I made it.”

Polsky played ice hockey at Yale University, and is himself the son of Soviet emigres. Here, as the film prepares to open across multiples screens within the next few months, Polsky talks about his labor of love.

Did you have a sense going into this project that there was a larger political context to examine?

I did. Here’s the reason: I'm not interested in making a film about hockey or for hockey fans or about hockey history or about politics, specifically. I wanted to make a universal movie that appeals to the hearts and minds of people. People who don't care about sports or hockey, or politics per se. I wanted to make sure I was telling a great story and telling it well. Beyond that, what compelled me to the story was the fact that politics and sport were so intertwined. It meant so much more than hockey. You know not just for the country but to the players and everyone around. It’s such a charged moment in history and that's what makes the story so rich. It's all of these components and my job was to weave all of them in a way that was exciting for people to watch and was interesting and entertaining.

You had no script, yet you came away with such a remarkable focal point in Slava Fetisov. When did you realize he was the one?

I honestly didn't know he was going to be the central character. I went to Russia and started interviewing some of the Soviet hockey legends and I knew Fetisov was important because he had been the captain of the team. But I didn't know the story was going to be anchored around him. It wasn't until I interviewed him that I realized he was such an interesting guy and a unique character that draws you in right away and you can't turn away from him you know? He's confrontational and dynamic and you never know what he's going to say next.

Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov Courtesy of Slava Fetisov/Sony Pictures Classics

Had you been to Russia before?

Yes. I was there in 1987 for a couple of weeks, and then 2002 roughly for a couple of weeks. I was a kid in '87 and I went to see some relatives. I was like 9 or 10 at the time, so I didn’t know any better. It was really different when I went back again this time — especially so different from America. I sensed a huge difference obviously, economically and culturally, between that first trip and the most recent one.

Your parents were Soviet emigres. Did they give you any advice before going this time since you were there for work?

No. But my dad in particular was helpful in putting me in touch with people he knew over there who were pretty helpful in getting this made.

I imagine there's also a lot of bureaucracy in getting things done in Russia. What other kinds of advance work did you do?

I had my father’s connections to a few of the players and that led to more and more—because they had friends on the team and they would say; "you know you should do this interview" and so on. I also had some good researchers helping me there and helping me stay organized. Obviously you run into challenges every day — you know with organization and locations and people changing and bureaucracy. I could tell you stories of having to change my plans all the time but you just have to go with the flow.

You snagged some amazing, rare footage. Where did the bulk of it come from?

I had to go to these archive houses in Russia, a lot of them that were owned by the government. And basically they aren't that well organized. I'd go in there and I speak a little bit of Russian and I'd tell them what I needed and they'd show me the area they think it might be in. And I would just look through old film footage, 35mm on a Steinbeck machine and scroll through and see what I could find. At first it was exciting and then it got overwhelming, there was so much stuff. But what's important is that there's a lot of stuff in the film that many people, I would say the majority of North Americans, have never seen before. And people always comment on how interesting it is, and how unusual the archival footage is.

2nd from left: Vladislav Tretiak, 8th from left: Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, 9th from left: Sergei Makarov Courtesy of Slava Fetisov/Sony Pictures Classics

Is there a piece of footage in particular that those people remark about?

Basically they just remark about the world they’re looking at. It's an alien world to them. Younger generations had no idea that's how life was in the Soviet Union.

Is there a player you wish you could have interviewed that you were unable to get?

Yeah there's a guy named Igor Larionov who was also on the Russian side, who I like — he's a smart guy but he didn't want to do it. I would have liked to get all of them but I'm happy with what I had. Maybe it would have made things even more complicated. Sometimes when people decide not to do things it makes your movie better for some reason. You just have to go with what you have and construct the story around it.

What about Viktor Tikhonov, the legendary coach who was so stern and disliked by his players? Oddly, he just passed away at 84 in late November, but I was wondering about why he wasn’t interviewed?

Right from the start he had no interest in working with me on the film. I asked him many times. As far as him dying, he knew about the film, I guess he commented to the press. But he was in bad health and old. But you know, I'm sure he heard about it. So he had a couple of things to think about before he passed away. He died and his players never really liked him or respected him. That's not really a good feeling.

How many cuts did you go through before you felt like you had it?

Oh man, I don’t know the number but so many. I worked with three different editors and everyone did a great job, but they get tired and sort of reach their capacity. It was just grueling, never ending. Ninety percent of the time of this production was in post.

You’ve directed features and produced the HBO documentary His Way. Red Army marks your documentary directorial debut. How do you like the form compared to features?

I love it. I love watching documentaries and I love making them. It's a different beast . . . I think it's even more difficult than making features especially in the post production — you know, you don't have a script and you're ultimately writing the film while you're editing it. You're trying to put the puzzle together to make it into an excellent story. It's basically like adapting a screenplay from a book except the material you have isn't necessarily in order

Do you believe this documentary can help people in the West better understand Russia?

We’re so used to seeing Russia as the bad guys in our media. I think people in North America don't really understand Russian people and the Russian experience and history on a human level. Really they don't. And this film makes it easy for people to understand that experience and the Russian soul and what life was like. And the leaders of Russia, Putin and so on, they grew up in this country, that's what they know and what shaped them. I hope this film really helps with building an understanding and empathy for that experience.