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‘Red Army’ is compelling ... and a victim of bad timing

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“RED ARMY” — ★★★ — Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladislav Tretiak, Vladimir Pozner; PG (thematic material and language); Broadway

Any mention of Soviet hockey in the United States typically conjures up images of the team that was on the wrong end of the "Miracle on Ice." The Soviets were the Goliath slain by our college boys, and the story usually ends with the closing ceremonies of those 1980 Winter Olympic Games.

But “Red Army,” a new documentary from director Gabe Polsky, insists there is more to the tale. His 76-minute effort tells the story from the other side of the Iron Curtain, and puts a human face on the vanquished giant.

It’s a great idea. But unfortunately for Polsky, he wasn’t the only filmmaker who had it. “Of Miracles and Men” was recently released as part of ESPN’s celebrated “30 for 30” documentary series. And sadly, it renders most of “Red Army” redundant.

Still, if you haven’t already seen “Of Miracles and Men,” “Red Army” is an interesting documentary. It covers the greater story of the USSR’s national team — dubbed the “Red Army” — tracing the rise of hockey behind the Iron Curtain as it grew into a juggernaut that lasted long after Mike Eruzione and Co.’s heroics in Lake Placid, New York.

From its opening moments, “Red Army” zeros in on the team’s most decorated player, Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov. Through interviews and file footage, Fetisov becomes the human protagonist at the heart of a story that says as much about the USSR as it does about hockey.

Aside from new interview footage intercut with the historical material, “Red Army” moves chronologically, telling us about the legendary Anatoly Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey and coach of the national team, at least until a political gaffe led to his replacement. Viktor Tikhonov took over before the Lake Placid games, and “Red Army” paints him as a political puppet, a lousy coach and the biggest reason for the U.S. upset.

The Miracle on Ice may be the biggest entry point for American audiences, but “Red Army” doesn’t spend a lot of time on the game, which is one way it differs from “Of Miracles and Men." The documentary is happy to move on to better times for Fetisov, who used his disappointment in 1980 to inspire gold medals for the USSR in 1984 and 1988. From there, “Red Army” tells the story of how Fetisov and his comrades made their way into the National Hockey League, and eventually to Stanley Cup glory.

Most of this is covered beat-for-beat in “Of Miracles and Men,” and in more depth. “Red Army” gives the lion’s share of its interview time to Fetisov, though other voices do manage inclusion. (Felix Nechepore, a former KGB agent, offers an interesting perspective on the ties between the team and the Soviet military.)

If you stick around long enough, “Red Army” does mine some territory of its own. Where “Of Miracles and Men” ties things off soon after Fetisov’s eventual NHL breakthrough, Polsky’s film shares more of the struggles the Soviet hero and his countrymen felt as they tried to integrate into the world of professional sports.

Many of these kinds of documentaries run out of gas as they bring the stories of past heroes into the present day, but “Red Army’s” most compelling content comes just before the final buzzer. Without giving too much away, anyone interested in understanding the current state of nationalism in Russia may be surprised and enlightened by what they see in the last few minutes of the film.

Altogether, Polsky’s effort is notable, in spite of its bad timing. “Red Army” is a solid and insightful documentary that puts the emphasis on its story. It doesn’t frill things up with a lot of style and flash, which kind of makes sense given its subject matter.

“Red Army” is rated PG for thematic material and language; running time: 76 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.