Miracle Monday: Red Army

Alright, I'm like five months late to this party. But when a movie has a limited release and doesn't come to your city, you just have to wait until you find another method by which to watch it. So Red Army premiered in January and I'm writing about it in June. (Finally!)

But now that that's out of the way... since I talked about Of Miracles and Men when it aired, I thought it was only fitting to talk about the other movie about Soviet hockey that was made this year. As in Of Miracles and Men, the Lake Placid Olympics were a pretty small footnote in Red Army. But if Of Miracles and Men did anything, it gave me a very strong fondness for Slava Fetisov, so I happily watched to hear some more from him. And I wasn't disappointed!

The movie starts with Slava Fetisov sitting in front of the camera but speaking on the phone. He hangs up but continues working on his phone while the director begins to talk to him about the concept of the film. It's incredibly awkward and you can tell Slava's just not having it. He says, "I'm busy now, hold on." But the director continues talking and asking questions. And finally Slava, without looking away from his phone, gives him the finger.

The very last clip of the movie cuts back to this interview; the director says "When you die, this [movie] is going to be your legacy!" And Slava, eyes still glued to his phone, says, "I know, I appreciate it. Good guy. I'm lucky to have you." The director says, "We're both lucky, to have each other." Slava smiles and says, "That's even better." He holds his phone to his ear, motions that he needs a few minutes, and then gives a thumbs up.

That, to me, sums up everything about this movie. You might start it thinking Slava's some cold, unfeeling Soviet, but by the end you realize that he's just a normal dude.

Or, well... sort of normal. :P

What continues to stick out to me is that, the more I learn about Soviet hockey, the more I believe that it's truly a tragic story. It's strange to even say that, considering how much those teams won and the staggering amount of success they had. But punctuating the stories of victories and medals are stories of struggles and losses far more significant than those that show up in record books. Slava talked about living rough when he was a kid, in an apartment with three families and no running water. "But I was happy kid. I played game, played hockey." It's truly heartbreaking to know how much he and his teammates loved hockey, and how much they grew to resent it.

The tragedy, really, starts with Viktor Tikhonov, the national team coach. In all of Slava's interview clips during the film, two things get the same negative reaction from him: being asked about Lake Placid, and being asked about Tikhonov. He falls silent, his face goes somber, and he takes a few painfully awkward seconds to gather his words. (When asked about Lake Placid, he eventually chuckles and goes, “You want a story? You got the time?” But when asked about Tikhonov, he just sort of sighs. Pretty telling.) Again, it's strange to say that Tikhonov ruined everything when he's one of the winningest coaches in hockey history.

But when Slava's younger brother was killed in a car crash in '85, Tikhonov offered no sympathy. And when a teammate asked to leave the team to go see his dying father, Tikhonov said no. These moments sort of triggered the thought process of, "why are you suffering so much for this team?" Slava started thinking about losing games on purpose so maybe he'd get kicked off the team and could go play elsewhere. He felt that disrespected as a human being. When he came to Canada and the U.S. with the Soviet national team, he never even thought about defecting. Not even after 1988, when he was being courted by the New Jersey Devils. Tikhonov had told him he'd be allowed to stay and finish the season in the NHL but went back on his promise and refused to let him leave; this is what finally prompted Slava to quit the Red Army team. He was tired of Tikhonov's dictatorial regime and no longer wanted to play for a coach he couldn't trust. He became a persona non grata in the Soviet Union: people he knew stopped talking to him, no hockey facility would let him train there, and the police handcuffed him to a tree and beat him. Really, it's awful to think that something that once made him so happy had turned into such a source of misery in his life.

You really start hating Tikhonov and hurting for all of his players, which is kind of the magic of this movie. All of the players are so completely humanized. There's a good chunk of time devoted to "the Russian Five" -- Slava, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, and Alexei Kasatonov -- who were kept together as a unit on the ice and spent all their time together off the ice. They're considered the greatest five-man unit in hockey history. Krutov, I have to say, has the most mournful face and just looking at him hits me right in the heart. And then there's the story of Slava and Alexei Kasatonov.

They were best friends, like brothers -- they played together as a defensive pair for their entire lives, grew up together, spent time with each other's families, the whole shebang -- but had a falling-out when Slava quit the national team. Alexei went public and said he disagreed with Slava's decision. (Makarov, Krutov and Larionov stood up for Slava; Alexei was the only one of the Five not to support him.) When the director asked Alexei to tell the story of what happened, he got visibly upset. With only a little more prompting he had tears in his eyes, and the only thing he said was, "Next question." It clearly still cuts very deep for the both of them. Later on they ended up playing together for the New Jersey Devils (awkwardly), but they ARE friends again! And when Slava was the Sports Minister of Russia, he appointed Alexei as the Vice President of the Red Army Hockey Club. (For real, one of my big complaints about Of Miracles and Men was that it never told us if these two ever reconciled. So when I learned that they have, I may have made a noise like a dying animal. Guys, I didn't need all these Soviet feelings in my life.)

I'm very fragile about this. I need a moment.

I also need to mention that this is a phenomenally-made movie. The graphics, the music, the silence, the creative use of close camera shots... it's all really, really excellent. The film opens with a clip of a speech by Ronald Reagan; "In the traditional motion picture story, villains are usually defeated, the ending is a happy one. I can make no such promise for the picture you're about to watch. The story isn't over. You in the audience are part of the conflict." Obviously this speech is from the '80s, but it rang very true here and felt incredibly poignant. Does this movie have a happy ending? It's hard to say, and I still haven't totally decided on the answer.

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