I know nothing about Ice Hockey and am not that interested in sport but this film by American director Gabe Polsky is absolutely riveting and, as it tells the story of a group of young hockey players in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, I was keen to see it.
The central figure is Slava Fetisov, something of a legend in Russia for a career that covers 70s Soviet unity, capitalism in 90s America and Putin era politics as Minister for Sport. Much of the film is based on interviews held with Gabe Polsky with ‘talking heads’ from experts of ice hockey and other members of the team included. I was interested to see Vladimir Posner interviewed as he was an eloquent spokesman for the Soviet Union on British television current affairs programmes during the 80s. He was always worth listening to.
Yet, a major question asked by film is why does any sportsperson compete? Is it for personal glory or for national pride? Slava Fetislov may have been an amazing player but he formed one part of a five player group that seemed to act as one person when playing. Their success came from a belief that the team was more important and, as it happened, more effective when individual glory played second place to team victory. This belief flourished in the Soviet system which saw victory in the sports arena as another way of winning an ideological war.
The USA was also using sport as a way of demonstrating that the West’s way of life was superior and it was fascinating to see how these opposing views were strengthened through victory and defeat. It was also interesting to see how Canada and USA used money as the only language they knew to encourage the Russians to join them.
Also examined is the difference in philosophies of the two Soviet coaches. Anatoli Tarasov was loved by his players who saw in him a mentor and father figure as well as a coach. His nurturing of his ‘boys’ was touching to see in the archive footage and his belief was that ice hockey should be as beautiful as the Bolshoi ballet with a fluidity of style from the players. When he upset Brezhnev, he was replaced by Viktor Tikhonov, a man who had no interest in his players as people but who served the system loyally. His oppressive regime caused some, including Fetisov himself, to refuse to play anymore.
The story was dramatic and the accompanying music was stirring. With archive footage effectively deployed this is a film worth seeing and it is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?