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Doc Corner: On the Ice with 'The Russian Five'

By Glenn Dunks

Ice hockey is not a sport I tend to pay any attention to. As an Australian, it’s barely on my radar outside of the movies. And even then, my mind only goes to the fab Canadian film Goon and Michael Ontkean’s jockstrap in Slapshot as worth the time (despite being of the generation, I was never much of a Mighty Ducks devotee). Still, I know a good story when I see one and like other documentaries about pro sports I could not give any less of a hoot about – titles like Senna and When We Were Kings, for instance – this new passionately-realized debut feature from director Joshua Riehl got me involved in its sport, its personalities and its man-made mythos.

And how! As a noted non-cryer at the movies, I can say I shed several tears by the end of The Russian Five and Its story of stubborn devotion, emotional anguish, and underdog triumph.

I was blithely aware of the story of “The Russian Five” as they were known – Sergei Federov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Larionov – through an earlier film about Russia and hockey that I did not like: Gabe Polsky’s 2015 documentary Red Army. Unlike in that film where I was extremely bothered by the framing and the cutting of what ought to have been exhilarating sporting sequences, The Russian Film had me excitedly watching the athletic prowess on display (and, yes, the violence, too). One would think I was watching a live event and not matches that happened two decades ago.

Indeed, I surprised myself at how deeply I was invested in the Detroit Red Wings’ dream of Stanley Cup success. Although considering my own beloved homegrown sports team had an even longer 44-year wait between premierships, I suspect any long-suffering sporting fan will recognise their own wish for sporting silverware will feel the same way.

But theirs isn’t just a story of perseverance or pure eye-popping ability, although it certainly is both. What makes the story of The Russian Five such a powerful one is in how it shows the behind-the-scenes mechanics of sport that we rarely see (too often the winning formula comes from an inspiring coach, but think something closer to Moneyball’s trading back-and-forths on ice), and ultimately the way these five Russian men were more embraced and affected change among those around them including both the other players their hometown supporters in the face of global politics that were at play in their stadium.

Yes, it essentially has the grand, rousing, fist-pumping finale that we’re familiar with from the likes of dramatic fare such as Remember the Titans or Friday Night Lights. But its own uniquely tragic turn of events and eventual feel-good revival is the sort of the story built for the movies. Whatever manipulation one may feel by a movie like The Russian Five in eking out tears, this story is real and the hunger that fuels it is more genuine than almost anything Hollywood could manufacture.

It’s a little bit of shame then that the finished film lacks polish. But visible budgetary seams are a minor quibble to have with a film that is this involving. The hockey footage is a treat (unlike Red Army, the footage has been minimally manipulated) and the abundance of talking heads from those directly involved in the story (including Jeff Daniels in a way that eventually makes perfect sense) allow for a wealth of information that otherwise would not come to light. Animations fill in some blanks, but everything here worth watching is flesh and ice-splattered blood.

Release: Has been in release for a few weeks now and has just re-expanding across America to time itself with the NHL playoffs.

Oscar chances: The Academy have been on a sporting kick lately with Undefeated, Icarus and Free Solo this decade. Plus, it’s proving to be popular at the box office. However, I suspect that The Russian Five is probably just not slick enough for them to nominate, but a shortlisting is easy to picture.

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Reader Comments (3)

"Michael Ontkean’s jockstrap in Slapshot”

I seem to remember Rob Lowe having a similar scene in Youngblood that stirred and confirmed certain feelings in me when I was younger too!!

May 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

I liked Red Army. I didn't know it was manipulated.

P.S. Loved Australia in Eurovision.

May 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Peggy, my memory of it is that there were a lot of unnecessary zooms and cropping of the hockey footage. I saw it with occasional TFE contributor Daniel Walber and I distinctly remember us discussing that element.

May 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

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