To decide if you want to see Gabe Polsky’s Red Army, think about how badly you want to see a documentary about the Soviet hockey team. As far as decision-making goes, it’s hard to get much easier than that. Red Army is exactly what it looks like, and it’s not a bad movie by any measure, but like so many documentaries, it’s difficult to truly get jazzed about unless you’ve already got an interest in the topic. There’s nothing in Polsky’s film that adds much to its basic premise, which is exactly what one might expect it to be. Expect lots of archival footage and lots of talking heads.
Occasionally, the film transcends its basic approach — or at least its stated one of illustrating life in the USSR via hockey — by touching on the complex nature of nationalism and occasionally delving into the complicated interpersonal relationships of the players and coaches. But these moments are short lived. Instead, Red Army wants to work as a history — and a very straightforward one at that — only giving facts and perspectives around said facts by the people involved. Yes, it’s informative, but only if you’re already in the frame of mind to care.
Beyond this, some strange filmmaking decisions get made along the way. There’s this tendency for the director — via disembodied voice — to ask seemingly dumb questions as a means of self-deprecation and cheap laughs, but it gets old after the first time it happens. Then there are these moments where Polsky believes something of great emotional resonance is happening during an interview, and he’ll have the camera track in closer to the subject for some sort of maximum impact. Honestly, it’s striking the first time it happens, and it’s obvious that Polsky wants to do something more interesting cinematically with his interview footage, but it gets sillier and more distracting the more often it happens. Just the idea of some guy scooting a camera into the face of a giant Russian defenseman who’s on the verge of tears as he recounts some sad personal moment in his life is pretty ridiculous by itself. Again, none of this is likely to be a distraction if you’re into what the movie wants to say, but it’s an easy distraction if the film hasn’t already engaged you. Rated PG for thematic material and language.