Review by Sean Boelman
Although ice hockey may not initially seem like one of the most exciting aspects of post-Cold War Russian politics, Gabe Polsky’s new documentary Red Penguins is surprisingly entertaining. Telling its story in a succinct and compelling way, this is a must-see for sports and history fans alike.
The film takes a look at the partnership that formed between the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and the Red Army hockey team after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American capitalists hoping to use the precarious economic situation in Russia to their advantage. There are a lot of angles to this story, and Polsky’s approach seems to be to present as many of these as possible to paint the most complete picture available.
At a mere hour and twenty minutes in length, there is a lot happening here in a very little amount of time. Polsky’s style is infectiously energetic, making the movie enormously entertaining, even if it is a bit rushed. This is one of those stories that keeps getting weirder and weirder as it progresses, and viewers will get wrapped up in its unexpected twists and turns.
Polsky does a very good job of blending the interviews with archive footage in a way that is cinematic. For a story that initially puts itself off as something small in scale, Polsky’s film feels quite grand and even occasionally epic. While the movie may not be innovative in a traditional sense, it’s still very well-done.
Arguably the most interesting part of the film is that dedicated to Steve Warshaw, the American marketing guru who was sent to reinvent the eponymous team’s image. Part of this is because Warshaw’s personality is just so eccentric and that comes across in his interviews, but his story of reinventing a sports team is extremely compelling.
That said, there are a few areas of the movie that leave something to be desired. There are hints of danger spread throughout the story, both in the interviews recounting what happened in the 1990s and Polsky’s quest to uncover the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, as one would expect, Polsky has to pull a lot of punches in this area.
The film may also be disappointing to those who come in expecting it to heavily lean into the sports element. Although there is some game footage, the focus in these portions is more on the spectacle of the show than the athleticism, and that does result in some excitement being lost.
Red Penguins is an entertaining documentary that will appeal to audiences of all types. Despite struggling to find its footing with a few of its storylines, it manages to be a pretty riveting watch all-around.
Red Penguins hits VOD on August 4.