Red Penguins

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Red Penguins
"There's little actual sport here, with more extensive focus on the half time entertainment, but that won't stop ice hockey fans from enjoying this ripping yarn." | Photo: Red Penguins Doc LLC

Looked at from the outside, the US' excitement about the collapse of the Soviet Union was always a curious thing. At a political level, of course, there were plenty of people who had always understood the Cold War as a matter of economic rivalry, but even in quite senior positions one encountered people who didn't see it that way at all, buying into the narrative that the great evil of Communism had been defeated and so a healthy democracy and free market capitalism would naturally follow. Of course, the problem with weakening the authorities at the top of a system is that it reorganises itself without any such guarantees, and a period of feudalism is the most common outcome. Whilst former players like Vladimir Putin manoeuvred to regain control, it was crime lords who really held power in Nineties Russia, and those ambitious Americans who sought to spin the situation to their own benefit could easily find themselves in trouble.

Gabe Polsky's documentary illustrates this situation neatly. Back in 2014, he made another film about the Russian Army hockey team, once one of the greatest in the world. This is a follow-up of sorts but it depicts a very different situation. It picks up after the collapse of the team's fortunes, when most of its best players had been lured away by the big money circulating in the US National Hockey League (NHL), and when fans had drifted away, distracted by dozens of new forms of entertainment. The longed-for luxuries of the West were finally available - chewing gum and cheesy pop music, flashy clothes, sunglasses, strip clubs, motorbikes and glossy magazines. Why bother with a tired old sport?

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Watching from the US, the owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins saw a team they had long admired on the brink of extinction and devised a scheme to save it - one they thought could be very profitable. They hooked up with the team's managers and offered to buy half of it, to invest heavily, and to get marketing man Steven Warshaw to repackage it. This he did with gusto, bringing the music and the strippers inside the arena, holding competitions, offering discounts and deals, luring in sponsors. He used every trick in the book and added a few more. The real live bears serving half time drinks were an idea all his own.

A hybrid of American ingenuity and Russian resilience, this might sound like a package destined for success - and for a while, it was. But that would be too slender a story for a film like this. Polsky finds at least as much to educate and entertain his audience as he catalogues its downfall. This is a story of deeply ingrained cultural misunderstanding. Russians frustrated by American arrogance, by their belief that everything can ultimately be resolved with money. Americans aghast that Russians might value reputation and toughness over their own financial success. Americans trying hopelessly to open up the country for exploitation with colourful cartoon characters and glamorous ads. Russians wondering why there was so much surprise and anger as they scraped away every last penny of profit to pay off mobsters or indulge their own taste for luxury.

It's a tidy little parable in the guise of a sports film. There's little actual sport here, with more extensive focus on the half-time entertainment, but that won't stop ice hockey fans from enjoying this ripping yarn. Polsky has managed to interview key players on both sides of the impasse, the Americans still looking stunned, the Russians expressing confusion as to why they're not friends any more. To at least some of them, it was all fun and games, even if several people died.

Keen market players live by the axiom that chaos always brings opportunity, and sometimes they die by it. Chaos on this scale has been seen only a few times in history. Before one ventures out onto the ice, it's important to know how to skate.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2020
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The story of what happened when Americans bought a Russian ice hockey team.

Director: Gabe Polsky

Writer: Gabe Polsky

Starring: Howard Baldwin, Viktor Tikhonov, Steven Warshaw, Howard Baldwin, Viktor Tikhonov, Steven Warshaw

Year: 2019

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US, Germany, Russia


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