Friday, 30 January 2015

RED ARMY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - American Doc on Soviet Hockey Ignores Canada

Red Army (2014)
Dir. Gabe Polsky

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Gabe Polsky’s feature length documentary Red Army is as much about the propaganda machine (of Cold War Russia/Soviet Union) as it is pure propaganda unto itself, by placing undue emphasis upon the rivalry between America and the Soviet Union on the blood-spattered battleground of ice hockey competition. Polsky has fashioned a downright spellbinding history of the Red Army hockey team, which eventually became a near-juggernaut of Soviet skill and superiority in the world.

In spite of this, many Canadians will call the film a total crock-and-bull story.

I wholeheartedly admit, however, the bias of growing up intimately within the universe of world competition hockey. My own father, Julian Klymkiw, played goal for Canada’s national team in the 1960s, a team that was managed by Chas Maddin (filmmaker Guy Maddin’s father). Guy and I eventually became the respective director-producer team behind Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel and Careful. Maddin went on to immortalise a ‘non-professional’ team from the wintry Canadian prairies in the Jody Shapiro-produced My Winnipeg. Maddin even featured a beefy lookalike of yours-truly wearing a uniform emblazoned with the name ‘Julian Klymberger’ (the surname being one of my own nicknames in years past and to represent my Dad).

To say Maddin and I were both well aware of the true rivalry in international hockey would be an understatement.

But one didn’t need to actually grow up in hockey families intimately involved with various Team Canada hockey leagues to realise that the United States was a blip on the Soviet rivalry-radar. The only famous match-up between the Soviets and America happened during the 1980 Olympics, when a team of veritable untested ‘kids’ hammered the Soviets (immortalised as the 2004 Walt Disney Studios feature film Miracle starring Kurt Russell).

Polsky’s film uses this match as the film’s primary structural tent pole, and completely ignores the historic 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series, which has gone down in most histories (save, perhaps, for America’s) as the greatest display of hockey war of all time. His film also ignores, though pays passing lip service, to the fact that the real rivalry throughout the 1970s and 1980s had virtually nothing to do with America and everything to do with Canada and Russia.

I know this all too well.

My own father eventually became the Carling O’Keefe Breweries marketing guru who brokered huge swaths of promotional sponsorship to Team Canada over 15-or-so years and, in fact, worked closely with hockey agent/manager/promoter and Team Canada’s mastermind Alan Eagleson. Dad not only spoke a variety of Slavic languages fluently, but his decades as an amateur and pro hockey player all contributed to making him an invaluable ally to both administrators and players of Team Canada. To the latter, famed Canadian sports reporter Hal Sigurdson reported, ‘Big Julie [Klymkiw] often rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty behind the Canadian bench.’

I’m not, by the way, arguing the absence of my Dad in this film – he did his thing, promoting beer to promote hockey and hockey to promote beer, which allowed him to travel the world and be with all the hockey players he loved – but what I’m shocked about is how Red Army can ignore my Dad’s old pal and colleague. The film includes ONE – count ’em – ONE off-camera sound bite from Alan Eagleson.

Polsky appears to have made no effort to even interview the man himself or include the reams of historic interview footage of Eagleson that fills a multitude of archives to over-flowing. Eagleson, for all the scandals that eventually brought him down, including imprisonment for fraud and embezzlement convictions, was the game’s most important individual on the North American side to make Soviet match-ups in the Western world a reality, and to allow professional North American players to go head-to-head with the Soviets. (Though Eagleson went down in flames, my Dad always remarked straight-facedly, ‘The “Eagle” never screwed me.’)

How, then, can a documentary about Soviet hockey so wilfully mute this supremely important Canadian angle to the tale? Where are the interviews (new or archival) with such hockey superstars as Gordie Howe (including sons Mark and Marty), Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Marc Tardif and all the others who battled the Soviets on-ice? Why are there only mere blips of Wayne (‘The Great One’) Gretzky, most notably a clip in which he sadly refers to the Soviets’ unstoppable qualities? Why are there not more pointed interview bites with the former Soviet players discussing the strength of Canadian players? It’s not like archival footage of this doesn’t exist.

There’s only one reason for any of these errors of omission: all the aforementioned personages and angles are Canadian. Ignoring the World Hockey Association’s (WHA) bouts with the USSR is ludicrous enough, but by focusing on the 1980 Olympic tourney and placing emphasis on the National Hockey League (NHL), the latter of which is optically seen as a solely AMERICAN interest, Red Army is clearly not the definitive documentary about the Soviet players that its director and, most probably American fans and pundits, assume it is.

America? HAH! Canada! YEAH!
As a sidenote, there's an excellent series of DVDs produced by the visionary Canadian producer-distributor Jonathan Gross and available through his company Video Services Corp. (VSC). The titles include Canada Cup ‘76, Team Canada 1974: The Lost Series, The WHA Chronicles, Canada Cup '84 and Canada Cup ‘87 and they ALL address this important aspect of Soviet-Canadian Hockey. I wonder if Polsky bothered to watch any of them? Only his hairdresser, or rather, conscience would know for sure. Full ordering info on the titles below review.

Even if one were to argue that the story Polsky was interested in telling didn’t allow for angling Canadian involvement more vigorously, ‘one’ would be wrong. The story of Soviet hockey supremacy has everything to do with Canada – a country that provided their only consistent and serious adversary, a country that embraced hockey as intensely as the USSR and a country, by virtue of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s official policy of Canadian multiculturalism, that reflected the vast number of Canuck players who had Eastern European blood and culture coursing through them.

It’s also strange how Polsky, the son of Soviet Ukrainian immigrants, ignores the fact that a huge majority of great Soviet players were ethnically Ukrainian. I vividly remember meeting so many of those legends as a kid and listening to them talk with my Dad about a day when maybe, just maybe, Ukraine would have its independence and display Ukrainian hockey superiority over the Russians, never mind the rest of the world. (Given the current struggles between Russia and Ukraine, this might have made for a very interesting political cherry-on-the-sundae.)

Ultimately, Red Army is American propaganda, or at the very least, is deeply imbued with American propagandistic elements. Given that it’s about Soviet hockey players, I find this strangely and almost hilariously ironic, which in and of itself, gives the movie big points.

All this kvetching aside, Red Army is still a solid film. Focusing on the historic and political backdrop of Joseph Stalin and those leaders who followed him, all of who built up one of the greatest, if not the greatest series of hockey teams in the world, this is still a supremely entertaining movie. Polsky’s pacing, sense of character and storytelling is slick and electric. The subjects he does focus upon, the greatest line of Soviet players in hockey history, all deliver solid bedrock for a perspective many hockey fans (and even non-hockey fans) know nothing or little about.

Polsky even interviews a former KGB agent who accompanied the Soviet players to North America in order to guard against defection to the West. Here again, though, I’ll kvetch about a funny Canadian perspective. Dad not only played hockey, not only was he a marketing guy, but he even squeezed in a decade of being a damn good cop in Winnipeg, and when Team Canada went to Russia, Dad would go from hotel room to hotel room, find bugs (not the plentiful cockroaches, either) and rip the KGB surveillance devices out of their hiding places for himself, his colleagues, players and administrators from the West.

I’ll also admit to enjoying the interviews with the likes of NHL coach Scotty Bowman and Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak; however, the most compelling subject in Polsky’s film is the Soviet defenceman Slava Fetisov, who movingly recounts the early days of his hockey career, his friendship and brotherhood with the other players and his leading role in encouraging Soviet players to defect for the big money of pro hockey in North America. It’s also alternately joyous and heartbreaking to see the juxtaposition between the balletic Soviet styles of play with that of the violent, brutal North American approach.

Contrast is, of course, an important element of any storytelling, but in a visual medium like film, it’s especially vital. It’s what provides the necessary conflict. With Red Army, however, the conflict is extremely selective. It is, after all, an American movie, and as it proves, if Americans do anything really well, it’s propaganda. Us Canucks here in the colonies can only stew in our green-with-envy pot of inferiority. We know we’re the best, but we have no idea how to tell this to the rest of the world, and least of all, to ourselves.

Kudos to Polsky and America are unreservedly owed.

They show us all how it’s done.


Red Army is currently in theatrical release via Mongrel Media in Toronto and Vancouver, followed by a February 27 release in Montreal and a rollout in the rest of Canada later in the year. It previously screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2014).

To read a full version of my essay Canada vs. America: The Politics and Propaganda of Sports in Gabe Polsky's RED ARMY and Bennett Miller's FOXCATCHER, feel free to visit my column: Greg Klymkiw's COLONIAL REPORT (on cinema) from the DOMINION OF CANADA at the ultra-cool UK-based magazine electric sheep - a deviant view of cinema by clicking HERE.