Created as an extension of the Soviet propaganda machine, and intended to symbolize all the virtues of a socialist society, the Red Army hockey team was virtually unbeatable from about the mid-'50s through 1991, with the exception of that little Olympic game in Lake Placid for which the czars-on-ice are now best remembered -- at least among non-hockey-besotted Americans. But don't come to "Red Army," Gabe Polsky's unbeatable sports documentary, looking for an explanation to that much-mythologized American victory. Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov looks like he still can't believe it happened.
The impatient Fetisov, one of the most-honored players in the history of international hockey and a longtime defenseman on the Soviet team, is a terrific centerpiece for Polsky's film, especially since the director is such a goofily awkward interviewer.
Polsky makes up for his deficits as a journalist, though, with his entertaining mix of archival Soviet footage, American and Soviet propaganda, extensive interviews and an awareness of how and why the Red Army story figured in the world at large. Also, by using Fetisov's archetypical story -- boy from impoverished background makes good with sheer guts/talent -- as metaphorical fuel for a post- (and possibly pre-) Cold War fable.
As privileged as the Red Army players seemed to be, and as much as they meant to the people of the USSR, they were also victims of a regime as totalitarian as the government that brooked little insubordination. When the glacial thaw of glasnost opened up possibilities in the West and NHL, the players faced a two-pronged attack -- from Soviet bureaucracy who didn't see them as free agents and Americans who didn't "get" the style of play that had dominated the sport worldwide for years. "Red Army" tells a great story, but is also peopled by men who might have been even greater if they hadn't been betrayed by time and history.