I'M A SUCKER for sports movies, which I would attribute to watching Cool Runnings 3,000 times as a kid. I may not know much about sports, but Cool Runnings is the Aristotelian ideal of a feel-good movie: These guys come from nothing, triumph over adversity, and in the end, it's not about winning, it's about walking off the field with your head held high.
Well, director Gabe Polsky's documentary Red Army is the opposite of that: It's subject is the Soviet national ice hockey team, which came from the actual Red Army, beat pretty much everyone all the time, and when they did lose, ABC made a TV movie, Miracle on Ice, about how great it was that they lost, starring Karl Malden and Steve Guttenberg—and that was followed 20 years later by another American movie, Miracle, starring Kurt Russell, that was, again, about how great it was that the Soviets lost. Thankfully, the other side of America's "Miracle on Ice" myth is remarkably good fodder for Red Army: The popular perception of invincible Russian ice-robots masks a far more compelling story about five men who were the best in the world at something for an entire goddamn decade.
While Polsky can be a priggish and confrontational interviewer, he's extremely skilled at weaving a narrative around both close-in scuffles by the goal to geo-political struggles simmering just off the ice. He charts the development of the Soviet hockey program and the cerebral, balletic techniques that allowed them to dominate the comparatively thuggish teams of Canada and the US. Through interviews with players, wives, and a KGB handler, Polsky reveals the complex cocktail of patriotism, ego, and obsessive training that allowed these men to succeed wildly in a culture wary of personal achievement.
I can't speak to the veracity of the Soviet archival film (or, fine, what the rules are for hockey), but Red Army works as a story about teamwork and humanity on the other side of the Iron Curtain.