Americans know very well that we beat the Soviet Union hockey team in the 1980 Olympics. It is a celebrated, symbolic victory that we have nicknamed the "Miracle on Ice," which inspired the 2004 film Miracle with Kurt Russell. What Americans may not know is Russia's side, which boasts an incredible story about elite hockey players chiseled from a regimented government and training system. The skill and power of these athletes who deserve a universal due is presented in director Gabe Polsky's documentary Red Army. Informative, thrilling, and unbelievable, the film is far more than a sports doc, as it explores the rise and fall of the Soviet Union through the treatment of star players like Viacheslov Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov. I previously interviewed Gabe and his brother Alan for their Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff drama The Motel Life, which was presented by Werner Herzog, and played at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2013.
I sat down with Polsky in exclusive interview when he was in town for CIFF. We discussed his mission of the film, the crucial blessing from one of his fans, how Red Army isn't just a sports movie, and more.
Red Army opens in Chicago on February 6.
What was your mission when taking on this project, telling a Russian story as an American filmmaker?
The only story that people know is “Miracle on Ice.” And that’s a testament to American propaganda. It was an amazing story … it was taking place during a very tenuous time in history. But that Olympics was what everything was about at that time. We all know the miracle. What I wanted to do was address it that it was a small part of a much larger story. I wanted to do it in a way that we hadn’t seen before, from a different perspective. I wanted it to be visceral, and be creative with it. So even when people see it, it’s not like this is just an episode. It’s different. I didn't want the documentary to be just talking heads. I wanted it to be like an Aronofsky film, visceral. And somewhat experimental.
How much footage did you have to go through yourself when making the doc?
I’ll just say that it was overwhelming, the amount of footage. I think it’s about 60-70% archival. I had to go to Russia to see it. I went out there and everything was disorganized and they didn’t know where the footage was and they were asking me why I was there. But they had these film canisters that were on shelves, and I would tell them what I was interested and I’d have to look through. It was insane how much footage was there. It was overwhelming, I could only look through a small portion of what existed. I had to mark it with tape, and then they had to digitize the portions.
Werner Herzog has been with you guys for a while. Did he have any advice about ‘Red Army’?
I showed him the movie when it was nearly done. I guess I was a little shy, I wanted him to like it. When I showed him the film he walked out of the room and his face was bright and he basically kind of thought the film was profound. It really touched him. He was commenting that it was amazing of what they did on the ice. He commented on the deep ideas of man and friendship and betrayal, and from then on I would get his advice on what to do with the film, and during some setbacks he was there to encourage me. He was sort of always the spiritual guy in a way, but not in a way of someone who tells you what to do. His work and his struggle and the pathos of his films were something that I wanted to have in my films. That nonverbal pathos in the characters about human nature, the distinct things, the mystery of the story. I’ve always thought that was an important aspect for good movies for me.
Was it more nerve-wracking this time, or the first time, to show Herzog a movie you had made?
Both were very different. It’s important that people get something out of it. That there’s a soul behind a movie. And that’s just so important. He’s the guy that has that barometer. That was so critical.
Were you weary of people labeling 'Red Army' as simply a sports movie?
I never screened this movie for sports fans, not until I was done with the movie. I played hockey, Division I. I knew that if I liked it it’s likely other sports fans will like it. So I would screen it for people that don’t like sports. I wanted to be sure that you didn’t have to like hockey or like sports to like this film, and that you could connect with it on an emotional and intellectual level.
If I say to people it’s about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, they’ll say “whatever.” But if I tell people it’s about the Soviet hockey team, same thing. But I say it’s an incredible unknown story about a guy who was a hero to his country, whose loyalty to his country was tested to the limit, and then those who beat the system and ultimately had to fight a whole other battle and became minister of sport under Putin.
Has 'Red Army' played in Russia yet?
Once at the Moscow International Film Festival, as an opening film. There were 2,000 people at the Pushkin Theater. There was also a 500-seat theater screening before with press. And at the main screening, I was really nervous. There’s lots of dark stuff. And if they didn’t think it was good or authentic, if it wasn’t a success there, it wouldn’t be a success. Because it’s about them.