'Red Army': Cannes Review

Sports meets politics back in the USSR.

Gabe Polsky's genial, jokey Eastern Blocumentary profiles Soviet Russia's star ice hockey team during their peak years as invincible Cold Warriors against the capitalist West.

CANNES – One of the most effortlessly pleasurable distractions in the Cannes festival program so far, Gabriel Polsky's solo directing debut is a playful documentary about the former Soviet Union's national ice hockey squad, an all-conquering machine schooled under military training-camp conditions as an ideological propaganda weapon. A sometime producer for Werner Herzog, who returns the favor here, Polsky previously co-directed the well-regarded 2012 indie drama This Motel Life with his brother, Alan.

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Showing out of competition in Cannes under the "special screenings" heading, Red Army is a slick, witty, fast-moving blend of sports story and history lesson with clear appeal beyond the hockey-fan demographic. The tone is mostly light-hearted, but with splashes of personal tragedy and political intrigue to add grit. Although Sony Pictures Classics recently signed up rights for North America, Asia and Eastern Europe, this real-life Cold War drama ultimately feels more suited to small screens than theaters.

Interweaving scratchy archive footage from the 1970s and 1980s with handsomely shot contemporary interviews, Polsky talks to former superstar players, retired KGB officers, sports journalists and veteran bureaucrats. His star interview is Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov, a former captain of the Soviet national team and double Olympic gold medal-winner, whose colorful life story gives the film its loose narrative spine. Fetisov's stellar career was full of triumph and tension, confrontations with his Communist bosses and bitter fall-outs with former sporting comrades.

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As the old USSR unraveled into political and financial bankruptcy, Fetisov declined hugely lucrative offers to defect to the NHL in North America, partly because he was being blackmailed to pay the bulk of his salary back to Russia. He was finally allowed to leave for a U.S. career with the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings, only to face red-baiting hostility and homesickness. In a neat ideological twist, the elegant collective teamwork that succeeded so brilliantly under Communism began to fall apart under the more brutal, individualistic playing style of the capitalist West. Like politics, sport is war by other means.

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A man with prodigious pride and no shortage of ego, Fetisov is also an enjoyably combative interview, shrugging off Polsky's questions with deadpan humor and sly sarcasm. Non-Russian audiences may be surprised by more recent developments in his career, revealed at the close of the film. Without getting into spoilers, Vladimir Putin is one of his close friends.

Incorporating jokey vintage clips of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, plus stylish animated graphics that borrow from classic Soviet poster art, Red Army tells a juicy story with brio and bounce. The soundtrack of jaunty cod-Russian folk music is also fun, even if it plays on well-worn Eastern Bloc cliches. More personal and psychological background on the key players might have elevated this fascinating historical drama beyond its slightly cartoonish elements. Even so, Polsky serves up a hearty dish of comfort-food nostalgia for the simple certainties of the Cold War.

Production companies: Gabriel Polsky Productions

Cast: Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladislav Tretiak, Scotty Bowman, Vladimir Pozner

Director: Gabriel Polsky

Screenwriter: Gabriel Polsky

Exective producers: Liam Satre-Meloy, Jerry Weintraub, Werner Herzog

Cinematographers: Peter Zeitlinger, Svetlana Cvetko

Editors: Eli Despres, Kurt Engfehr

Music: Christophe Beck, Leo Birenberg

Sales Company: Wild Bunch

No rating, 75 minutes