Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
Canadians are better educated, smarter, more socially conscious, modest, polite and quieter than our American brothers and sisters. This is fact. Alas, in the national pride department, Uncle Sam beats our insanely muted approach to flag-waving hands down. The exception to this rule is hockey. When Canucks play this greatest of all great games on an international sheet of ice, our pride-meter slides precariously close to the edge, rivalling even that of the Home of the Brave (though meekly, never besting it). I’m reminded of this rare equilibrium twixt our otherwise contrasting nations thanks to a pair of fine new pictures making their North American bows at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on the heels of their triumphant Cannes debuts in the spring.
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014) ****
Red Army (Gabe Polsky, 2014) ***
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Gabe Polsky’s Red Army are sure to make a huge splash in Canada and the US, where they are being distributed by Mongrel Media and Sony Pictures Classics. Both will no doubt generate major Oscar-buzz here, which has almost become TIFF’s raison d’être, in addition to screening hundreds of movies and acting as an international press junket.
As a staunch denizen of the Dominion of Canada, what makes these two films interesting is how, as sports pictures, they help underline the differences between this vast northern Commonwealth colony and the good old US of A – especially how our respective propaganda machines relate to national pride.
In America, propaganda is everything.
In Canada, propaganda is, well, you know, it’s kind of okay, uh, you know, sort of, because it’s sometimes necessary, well, not necessary, or rather, yes, okay, it is indubitably, sort of vital, but not really, eh.
Foxcatcher, one of the most exciting American movies of the year, very strangely employs propagandistic elements within the narrative structure provided by screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, which, in turn, the director Bennett Miller superbly jockeys in his overall mise-en-scène. Astonishingly, the filmmakers manage to have their cake and eat it too. By offering a detailed examination of propaganda within the context of American history and society, as well as a mounting and ever-subtle critical eye upon it, Miller might continue to add accolades to his mantle in addition to the Best Director nod he copped at Cannes.
The maker of the taut and compelling baseball drama Moneyball (2011) and the well crafted, though somewhat overrated Capote (2005), dazzles us here with the true-life story of Olympic wrestling champions Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Though the shy, unassuming Mark is a gold medal winner in his own right, he’s been overshadowed by his dynamic, gift-of-the-gab-blessed sibling. This all changes when the beefy, brawny mat-brawler is summoned to the palatial estate of John du Pont (Steve Carell in a performance so astonishing I forgot it actually was, uh, Steve Carell until the closing credits), heir to the powerful American dynasty of the du Pont family (who amassed their fortune mainly through the manufacturing of arms for America’s war machine). John offers his unqualified financial sponsorship to Mark, a palatial guesthouse to live in and a state-of-the-art training facility on the grounds of his home. The only catch is that du Pont will be the coach. He knows nothing about coaching, though, and hires brother Dave to be his assistant (and real) coach.
The film charts the friendship between the working class stock of Mark and the privilege of John du Pont, the brothers’ envy-and-love-fused bond, John’s desire to legitimise himself in the eyes of his horsewoman mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and, of course, the endlessly fascinating, meticulous, pain-steeped training and various qualifying competitions leading to the Olympics.
Optics is the ultimate tool-in-trade of blue bloods, and here is where the screenplay and Miller’s unerring directorial eye create a layer that permeates both the narrative and visuals. Even at a low-point early on, Mark keeps the faith in his poverty and loneliness by buttressing himself with the notion that he and those who are both around him and who will follow him must continue to persevere for the sake of America.
Granted, flags are preposterously ubiquitous in America, but one almost senses that those stars and stripes have been carefully included in the backdrop and foreground of the film. One breathtaking moment includes a travelling car interior point-of-view of a huge flag unfurling in the wind as Mark drives to the du Ponts’ Foxcatcher Farms estate.
Certainly, John himself is virtually pathological in his patriotism for America, strolling through the leafy Walden-Pond-like acreage of his estate, guiding Mark to points of historical interest from the American Revolution and spouting the most fervent patriotic rhetoric within the context of virtually everything, but especially within the contexts of both war and (naturally) sports.
The film takes great pains to illustrate John’s attention to details that will accentuate his own accomplishments whether merited or, in the case of his coaching, decidedly not. He goes so far as to hire a film crew to document his work as a coach, and we’re afforded numerous moments where interviewees are cajoled into extolling his virtues, and where he delivers training and words of wisdom his team are already well versed in, which manage to take on mythic proportions through the lens of the cameras.
Brilliantly and with great subtlety, the film’s sense of optics and propaganda amongst the nobility feels infused to a point where non-Americans and certainly discriminating American audiences will sense that Foxcatcher is itself propaganda. As the tale progresses and John du Pont’s inbred eccentricities give way to his becoming slowly and dangerously unhinged, so too does the film shift gears into critical territory. The perception of the American Dream sours and leads to a sad, shocking and downright tragic film about delusions of grandeur transforming into psychopathic proportions – not unlike America itself.
Gabe Polsky’s feature length documentary Red Army is as much about the propaganda machine (of Cold War Russia) as it is pure propaganda unto itself, by placing undue emphasis upon the rivalry between America and the Soviet Union on the blood-spattered battleground of ice hockey competition. Polsky has fashioned a downright spellbinding history of the Red Army hockey team, which eventually became a near-juggernaut of Soviet skill and superiority in the world.
In spite of this, many Canadians will call the film a total crock-and-bull story. While a Maple Leaf perspective might provide an eye more sensitive to Miller’s exploration of the propagandistic gymnastics of American blue blood powerbrokers, there is bound to be more than just a little crying foul over Polsky’s film.
I perhaps have the bias of growing up intimately within the universe of world competition hockey. My own father, Julian Klymkiw, played goal for Canada’s national team in the 1960s, a team that was managed by Chas Maddin (filmmaker Guy Maddin’s father). Guy and I eventually became the respective director-producer team behind Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel and Careful. Maddin went on to immortalise a ‘non-professional’ team from the wintry Canadian prairies in the Jody Shapiro-produced My Winnipeg. It even featured a beefy lookalike of yours-truly wearing a uniform emblazoned with the name ‘Julian Klymberger’ (the surname being one of my own nicknames in years past). To say we were both well aware of the true rivalry in international hockey would be an understatement.
But one didn’t need to actually grow up in hockey families intimately involved with various Team Canada hockey leagues to realise that the United States was a blip on the Soviet rivalry-radar. The only famous match-up between the Soviets and America happened during the 1980 Olympics, when a team of veritable untested ‘kids’ hammered the Soviets (immortalised as the 2004 Walt Disney Studios feature film Miracle starring Kurt Russell).
Polsky’s film uses this match as the film’s primary structural tent pole, and completely ignores the historic 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series, which has gone down in most histories (save, perhaps, for America’s) as the greatest display of hockey war of all time. His film also ignores, though pays passing lip service, to the fact that the real rivalry throughout the 1970s and 1980s had virtually nothing to do with America and everything to do with Canada and Russia.
I know this all too well.
My own father eventually became the Carling O’Keefe Breweries marketing guru who brokered huge swaths of promotional sponsorship to Team Canada over 15-or-so years and, in fact, worked closely with hockey agent/manager/promoter and Team Canada’s mastermind Alan Eagleson. Dad not only spoke a variety of Slavic languages fluently, but his decades as an amateur and pro hockey player all contributed to making him an invaluable ally to both administrators and players of Team Canada. To the latter, famed Canadian sports reporter Hal Sigurdson reported, ‘Big Julie [Klymkiw] often rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty behind the Canadian bench.’
I’m not, by the way, arguing the absence of my Dad in this film – he did his thing, promoting beer to promote hockey and hockey to promote beer, which allowed him to travel the world and be with all the hockey players he loved – but what I’m shocked about is how Red Army can ignore my Dad’s old pal and colleague. The film includes ONE – count ’em – ONE off-camera sound bite from Alan Eagleson.
Polsky appears to have made no effort to even interview the man himself or include the reams of historic interview footage of Eagleson that fills a multitude of archives to over-flowing. Eagleson, for all the scandals that eventually brought him down, including imprisonment for fraud and embezzlement convictions, was the game’s most important individual on the North American side to make Soviet match-ups in the Western world a reality, and to allow professional North American players to go head-to-head with the Soviets. (Though Eagleson went down in flames, my Dad always remarked straight-facedly, ‘The “Eagle” never screwed me.’)
How, then, can a documentary about Soviet hockey so wilfully mute this supremely important Canadian angle to the tale? Where are the interviews (new or archival) with such hockey superstars as Gordie Howe (including sons Mark and Marty), Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Marc Tardif and all the others who battled the Soviets on-ice? Why are there only mere blips of Wayne (‘The Great One’) Gretzky, most notably a clip in which he sadly refers to the Soviets’ unstoppable qualities? Why are there not more pointed interview bites with the former Soviet players discussing the strength of Canadian players? It’s not like archival footage of this doesn’t exist.
There’s only one reason for any of these errors of omission: all the aforementioned personages and angles are Canadian. Ignoring the World Hockey Association’s (WHA) bouts with the USSR is ludicrous enough, but by focusing on the 1980 Olympic tourney and placing emphasis on the National Hockey League (NHL), the latter of which is optically seen as a solely AMERICAN interest, Red Army is clearly not the definitive documentary about the Soviet players that its director and, most probably American fans and pundits, assume it is.
Even if one were to argue that the story Polsky was interested in telling didn’t allow for angling Canadian involvement more vigorously, ‘one’ would be wrong. The story of Soviet hockey supremacy has everything to do with Canada – a country that provided their only consistent and serious adversary, a country that embraced hockey as intensely as the USSR and a country, by virtue of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s official policy of Canadian multiculturalism, that reflected the vast number of Canuck players who had Eastern European blood and culture coursing through them.
As a side note to this, it’s also strange how Polsky, the son of Soviet Ukrainian immigrants, ignores the fact that a huge majority of great Soviet players were ethnically Ukrainian. I vividly remember meeting so many of those legends as a kid and listening to them talk with my Dad about a day when maybe, just maybe, Ukraine would have its independence and display Ukrainian hockey superiority over the Russians, never mind the rest of the world. (Given the current struggles between Russia and Ukraine, this might have made for a very interesting political cherry-on-the-sundae.)
Ultimately, Red Army is American propaganda, or at the very least, is deeply imbued with American propagandistic elements. Given that it’s about Soviet hockey players, I find this strangely and almost hilariously ironic, which in and of itself, gives the movie big points.
All this kvetching aside, Red Army is still a good film. Focusing on the historic and political backdrop of Joseph Stalin and those leaders who followed him, all of who built up one of the greatest, if not the greatest series of hockey teams in the world, this is still a supremely entertaining movie. Polsky’s pacing, sense of character and storytelling is slick and electric. The subjects he does focus upon, the greatest line of Soviet players in hockey history, all deliver solid bedrock for a perspective many hockey fans (and even non-hockey fans) know nothing or little about.
Polsky even interviews a former KGB agent who accompanied the Soviet players to North America in order to guard against defection to the West. Here again, though, I’ll kvetch about a funny Canadian perspective. Dad not only played hockey, not only was he a marketing guy, but he even squeezed in a decade of being a damn good cop in Winnipeg, and when Team Canada went to Russia, Dad would go from hotel room to hotel room, find bugs (not the plentiful cockroaches, either) and rip the KGB surveillance devices out of their hiding places for himself, his colleagues, players and administrators from the West.
I’ll also admit to enjoying the interviews with the likes of NHL coach Scotty Bowman and Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak; however, the most compelling subject in Polsky’s film is the Soviet defenceman Slava Fetisov, who movingly recounts the early days of his hockey career, his friendship and brotherhood with the other players and his leading role in encouraging Soviet players to defect for the big money of pro hockey in North America. It’s also alternately joyous and heartbreaking to see the juxtaposition between the balletic Soviet styles of play with that of the violent, brutal North American approach.
Contrast is, of course, an important element of any storytelling, but in a visual medium like film, it’s especially vital. It’s what provides the necessary conflict. With Red Army, however, the conflict is extremely selective. It is, after all, an American movie, and as both this film and Foxcatcher prove, if Americans do anything really well, it’s propaganda. Us Canucks here in the colonies can only stew in our green-with-envy pot of inferiority. We know we’re the best, but we have no idea how to tell this to the rest of the world, and least of all, to ourselves.
Kudos to Polsky and America are unreservedly owed. They show us all how it’s done.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon Cinema’.