The practice was hard and part of a massive systematic attempt to utterly dominate the sport. This was not just a game, but propaganda. The emphasis was on teamwork, intricate passing, high levels of technical and tactical skill and a fanatical demand for victory. If collaboration was consistent with the socialist ideal, the tactics and approach had older sources in Russian culture. Chess grandmasters were consulted on tactics and the Bolshoi called in to help with movement training and flexibility. Fetisov is at the heart of the documentary and the historic story of ice hockey in the Soviet Union, even as the country headed for Glasnost and dissolution. He's also a tricky interviewee, showing Polsky some of the attitude which made him hard to contend with whether you were a coach, an opponent or the authorities.
Throughout the eighties the winds of change (as The Scorpions might have it) began to blow, and Fetisov began to look to the possibility of playing in the NHL. The off-ice war to keep Fetisov in the USSR, even though he now refused to play in the team, makes for fascinating viewing and the further testimony of a KGB man on how the team was watched and controlled likewise. When Fetisov finally got his chance, he was bemused to discover that the Americans simply couldn't play the Soviet style. We've had many excellent sports documentaries recently - Senna (2012) being an obvious standout - and facilitated by German director Werner Herzog (who gets a producer's credit) Polsky has produced a slickly entertaining piece of Cold War history. His relaxed attitude irreverent interviewing style allows for some wonderful little moments. The KGB man's daughter interrupts to ask for ice cream and, early on, Fetisov gives Polsky the finger.
In fact, Fetisov's intransigence on some questions is probably a function of his second career as a Putin-groomed politician, but it's also a sobering corrective to Polsky's occasionally simplistic preconceptions. "Tell us about the queueing," Polsky asks, only to get short shrift. If there's one criticism, it might be that with so much story to tell, the 85-minute runtime perhaps leaves out a little that would have been of interest, in particular the ice hockey itself. Although we get some highlight clips, it would have been nice to have had perhaps the story of a hinge game, for instance the defeat by the Americans which Polsky shows through a score board and a series of reaction shots of the present day as Fetisov watches an old tape, though it's still fascinating to see the pain on the man's face over thirty years after the fact. Polsky keeps Red Army driving forward and the result is a film as fast-paced and bloody-minded as the sport it celebrates.
The full Glasgow Film Festival 2015 programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at glasgowfilm.org.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty