There are times when sport isn't a metaphor -- it's simply war, a skirmish of ideals. Think of the Soviet Union's rival-crushing Cold War hockey team, which between 1978 and 1992 won three Olympic golds and eight World Championships. "They're a microcosm of their society," Reagan insisted of the Soviet team, and if they triumphed, so did communism.
Gabe Polsky's fascinating and funny documentary Red Army opens with Reagan's bellicose speech, and tracks how both countries fought their PR wars on the rink. Polsky couldn't have scored a better centerpiece subject than Soviet team captain Slava Fetisov -- even if, at the start, we're not sure the brusque Fetisov will tell him a damned thing. When Polsky begins to film him, Fetisov makes Polsky pause while he takes a phone call. Polsky fills the time by flooding the screen with a list of Fetisov's awards and achievements, from the gold medals to the Order of Lenin to the asteroid named in his honor. We get it. We'll wait.
Red Army is a riveting look behind the Iron Curtain. Fetisov's beloved first coach, Anatoli Tarasov, trained his athletes with tactics from the best of Russian culture. The team was steeped in selfless collectivism. (By contrast, he found the NHL players disorderly and ego-driven.) Our inclination, naturally, is to root for Fetisov to champion the American way of life. He did eventually attain Stanley Cup glory with the Detroit Red Wings, after all. But Red Army has laid the groundwork for something more complex: It reveals the strengths of the Soviet athletic program, and the weaknesses of our own -- a star-driven, money-flaunting braggart that, er, shares the same flaws as capitalism.