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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Red Army (Blu-ray)
Red Army (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // PG // June 9, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ryan Keefer | posted May 30, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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The Movie:

Living in the part of the world that I do, I get the opportunity to watch Alex Ovechkin play his trade with the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals on a frequent basis when hockey season in going on. Ovechkin is considered one of the best players in the League and considering his Russian heritage, would be considered remarkable to contemplate a quarter century ago, considering the tensions within Russia and the difficulties of players coming to play in the NHL. In Red Army, we get a sense of just how difficult it was for players for Russia's Red Army team (CSKA Moscow), which was primarily the de facto national team, as they played during the Cold War era. The film is directed by Gabe Polsky, who served as producer on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which Werner Herzog directed. Herzog returns the favor by serving as Executive Producer on Red Army.

The Russian hockey team made their announcement onto the world stage in 1972, taking a team of NHL All-Stars to their limits in an eight-game series. The Summit Series (as it was called) still serves as a milestone in hockey history. The Russians continued their ascent in the ‘70s before being temporarily derailed due to the 1980 Winter Olympics. They moved past it while winning World Championships and regaining Olympic gold, and when Glastnost began to take hold in Russia, the conflict between the offices of Russian power and the hockey players who were arguably some of the most visible parts of said power began to butt heads.

The main interview subject of Red Army is Slava Fetisov. Fetisov was the longtime captain of the Red Army team and national team for most of the 1980s. Fetisov won 11 medals at the World Championships (seven Gold), three medals at the Olympics (two Gold) and countless decorations from the Russian federation. As coach Viktor Tikhonov assumed power as coach of the national team, Fetisov began to saw clashes between coach and players, which resulted in players leaving the national team, including goaltender legend Vladislav Tretiak. Soon, Fetisov had his own clashes with the coach, which forced his banishment from the team. Four of Fetisov's teammates and those had shared the most ice with threatened to join him before Tikhonov relented. This is all pretty much before the topic of the NHL is broached, and all within the first 50 minutes of the documentary. And there is more that I've omitted.

Fetisov is an intriguing sort, as we see in the opening scenes of the film. Transfixed to his phone, Polsky asks him if he is ready to begin interviewing, Fetisov asks him to wait. Polsky asks again, Fetisov gives him the finger. Slowly we see Fetisov open up about his time in Russia and his ordeal to get to the West to play the sport he loves. Additional interview subjects include Russian-born writers and a player from the era just before Fetisov. An additional interesting person within Red Army is Felix Nechepore, a now retired KGB agent. Nechepore is sitting in an old park and talks about the KGB spying on players and their families, all the while entertaining a young girl next to him (which we find out later that is NOT his granddaughter!). The girl tries to shine some optimism into his interview but Nechepore is having none of it. The interactions are fascinating.

Seeing the candor of his subjects before and sometimes during a shot is being set up, Polsky unintentionally but subtly uses this as a way of dispelling some of the Russian icons we may have seen in a different way. How Polsky uses Russian sport to help illustrate how Russian society changed and at the end seems to be reverting back to some of those same mechanisms is also smart. Consider that Fetisov did not defect when given the chance because of loyalty to country, and returned to the country and today is now Minister of Sport. Red Army shows the struggle of the hockey players, but that it quietly shows more than that may be one of the film's strengths.

Having Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin in the National Hockey League plying their trade and being among the best at it is encouraging, especially as a Caps fan. And if anyone has a remote idea of how Russians came to the National Hockey League, they owe it to themselves to see Red Army for a fuller appreciation of the struggle that Fetisov, Larionov et al had to endure. To appreciate the present even more, one should check out the past and the film does a great job of doing that.

The Blu-ray Disc:
The Video:

Sony presents Red Army in 1.78:1 widescreen and uses the AVC encode for its high-definition presentation. Polsky juggles a variety of film sources, some of which appear in full frame, while others are reformatted for widescreen, mainly the hockey action. A good portion of the footage includes timestamps and an occasional watermark, and has a bit of noise inherent to the material. It remains interesting to me that Russian video footage appears in two colors: black and white, or even sepia if you're feeling exotic. That out of the way, the interviewees all appear natural and have some image detail to them, though everything looks as accurate as expected.

The Sound:

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless surround track has a bit of a punch to it, most of it enhancing the original audio, all sounding solid. The hockey hits in the film get subwoofer involvement, and the film has a bit of channel panning to it, thought directional effects are a little scarce. Dialogue is clear and consistent throughout Red Army and is one of the more dynamic soundtracks for a documentary in recent memory.

Extras:

There are a number of extras on the disc, starting with a commentary from Polsky AND Herzog. Polsky fills in some of the detail surrounding the production and Herzog talks about the film in some moments, and looks at the larger storytelling points. On a small tangent, Herzog does like to use the work ‘taciturn' a lot. Not good or bad, just an observation. Polsky also talks about hockey in general and how he was able to ensure the film was made, and Herzog helps keep Polsky's momentum on a topic going when needed. This is a nice addition to the film.

Next up are eight deleted scenes (11:32), some are extended scenes, though a couple help show off the Summit Series and another includes an appearance by Pavel Bure, another Russian superstar. Another of the film's subjects, coach Scotty Bowman, has his interview footage included separately (16:16). In it, he shares his thoughts on the Russian game and players both before he added those players to his roster when he was a coach in the mid'1990s, and the pros and cons of the system. Two Q&A's follow; the first is with Polsky and Michael McFaul (52:06). An audio-only segment, McFaul is the former United States Ambassador to Russia and currently is a professor at Stanford. This session looks more at the economics and politics of Russia during that era, and includes thoughts from some of the interview subjects (through Polsky's eyes) now. This different angle is worth checking out. Polsky's Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival is next (14:23) and is a bit lighter in scope, but entertaining nonetheless. The film's trailer (2:05) completes things.

Final Thoughts:

I had some idea of the ordeal of the Russian Five (and other players) and the film does hoe some of the same ground. But even still, Red Army examines this in greater detail along with how tied into the successes of the country that the hockey team was. Regardless of youw knowledge on the subject, there is something for everyone in the film. Technically it is quite good, and the supplements are surprisingly abundant. Absolutely required viewing.

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