Telluride: 'Red Army' Joins 'Keep on Keepin' On' at Top of Heap of Best Doc Oscar Contenders
Gabe Polsky's film explores the lives and careers of five Russian hockey stars before and after their devastating loss to America in the 1980 Olympics
The last film that I saw at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival was also the best film that I saw at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival, and, indeed, one of the best documentaries that I have ever seen: Gabe Polsky's Red Army, which landed in the Rockies after premiering at Cannes back in May. It received many reactions like my own at both venues and, with the enthusiastic backing of Sony Pictures Classics, which will release it later this fall, it has to be considered a co-frontrunner for the best documentary feature Oscar (along with fellow Telluride selection Keep on Keepin' On).
You may have heard that Red Army -- on which Werner Herzog (whose 2009 film The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans Polsky produced) and Jerry Weintraub are credited as executive producers -- is about hockey, and it is. (Sony Classics co-chief Tom Bernard is a big hockey buff.) But it is also about so much more. It's about the importance of sports to people around the world. It's about the beauty of friendship and the pain of betrayal. It's about the cultivation of patriotism versus the power of pragmatism. And it is about Russia and America in the past, the present and the future.
Like many great documentaries, it takes something that seems familiar to many of us -- namely, the 1980 Olympic hockey match in Lake Placid, at the height of the Cold War, in which the Americans beat the heavily favored Soviets ("Do you believe in miracles?!") en route to winning the gold medal -- and shows us how much about it we actually don't know.
In this case, it zeroes in on the five players at the core of that Soviet team -- especially captain Slava Fetisov -- and, through great recent interviews and archival footage, lays out how they came to be hockey players and members of the national team; how the 1980 loss -- and the fall of the Soviet Union, not long thereafter -- impacted their lives and careers; and how they have wound up where they are today, several in the most unexpected of places.
This is as engaging, funny and moving a lesson about recent history as one could ever hope for. And, as tensions between Russia and America approach heights not seen since the Cold War, it offers important insight into the views and experiences that shaped the generation which now holds power in the Kremlin.
I'd look for it to join a considerable number of docs that used sports to explore larger issues en route to receiving best documentary feature Oscar noms, among them: Jack Johnson (1970), On Any Sunday (1971), The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975, winner), Off the Edge (1976), Going the Distance (1979), Hanks Aaron: Chasing the Dream (1995), When We Were Kings (1996, winner), On the Ropes (1999), Murderball (2005) and Undefeated (2011, winner). This one is as good as any of them.
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