Red Army

"Red Army" profiles the Soviet Union's storied Cold War-era hockey outfit.

Sony Pictures Classics

‘Red Army’
Gabe Polsky
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

The “Miracle on Ice” was one of America’s most “America!” moments: when the U.S.’s decent, god-fearing hockey team pulled a David over the Goliath that was the USSR’s fearsome, godless unit at the 1980 Olympics. As “Red Army” reveals, the U.S. tale — chronicled in the 2004 inspirational sports weepie “Miracle,” starring a barking Kurt Russell — wasn’t even the saddest, most inspiring story. Playing devil’s advocate, if you will, director Gabe Polsky hears what the former Soviets had to say, and comes away with the realization that theirs was not only more thrilling, but more inspiring, and funnier too.

Their big, shocking loss in 1980 comes fairly early into “Red Army,” and it’s treated as a loss — the kind of event right out of a “Rocky” sequel, where the spirit of the mighty is crushed but only inspires them to train for a comeback. In fact, Polsky uses the language of revved-up, emotional sports documentary cinema, but only so he can apply it to America’s old enemies. “Red Army” is structured as a rise and fall and rise again tale, and a tall one: A good reason the Soviet hockey team was so mighty is because their players were trained since childhood. They’re like the Spartans in “300,” only with better checking.

The USSR team’s dominance over the sport was long and mighty, but it couldn’t last: Once the Soviet Union crumbled, players’ lives went all over the place. Some were scooped up by their former Western rivals, and had to fight deep-seated prejudice by Americans and Canadians raised to hate the Soviets. Others were stuck in the rubble of a collapsed empire, awaiting endless negotiations if not tortured by the state police. What starts larger than life eventually turns sad and tragic, like any good manipulative melodrama. But it’s a sly film, one that puts us firmly on the side of America’s former enemies. What it does is subtler and more useful than even that. It quietly questions why we root for sports in the first place. It gets us to root for the Soviets not out of nationalism but for a more base reason: because they kicked ass.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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