TIFF Review: ‘Red Penguins’

Gabe Polsky returns to the ice after ‘Red Army’

4 mins read

Red Penguins
(USA, 80 min)
Dir. Gabe Polsky
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

In 2014 Gabe Polsky had a TIFF hit with Red Army, a terrific doc about the Soviet national team’s dominance of international hockey from the Fifties to the Nineties and about the incursion of Russian players into the NHL after the Soviet Union collapsed. Five years later Polsky returned to the festival with Red Penguins, a spiritual sequel that shows the flipside of the Russia-US exchange, when a group of entrepreneurial Americans sought to bring their business acumen and flourish for spectacle to a post-Soviet sports system.

The film focusses on Steve Warshaw, a fast-talking, high-strung executive that looks like he was found in central casting. At the direction of the executive of the then-Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins, Warshaw was meant to foster cooperation with the old CSKA Moscow (Red Army) team with financial support and promotional skills during the turbulent years following the collapse of the state-sponsored system.

Polsky managed to wrangle not only the Americans who spearheaded the project but many of the Russians – coaches, former KGB officers and military commanders alike – who embody the culture clash that, despite increasing profits by millions of dollars, resulted in even more chaos than at the beginning.

Polsky’s film brilliantly uses hockey as the platform for a deep dive into the emergence of the oligarch class, showing that in the brief period of time between Gorbachev, through Yeltsin and leading to the rise of Putin, things really were completely gonzo. It’s a state of lunacy reflected by the carnival-like events that Warshaw would bring to the ice, including strippers and trained bears, all to inject the right kind of razzle dazzle that would fill the stands with drunken, belligerent yet loyal patrons.

The chaos exhibited is darkly comedic, its over-the-top nature undercut by the real world violence and corruption that emerged. Some of the Russian interviewees provide chilling accounts, while the Americans allude to other major corporations that pride themselves on family friendliness came seriously close to making deals with criminals and hoodlums.

As the story leads to the rise of Putin’s political might the film loses a bit of steam, not surprising given that many of the relevant witnesses are a bit more reluctant to talk on record about the ongoing situation, while some did not live to tell the tale. It’s thus all the more remarkable the level of frankness that Polsky manages to elicit from his witnesses, even if at times the answers prove to be contradictory among the participants.

With animation providing visual flair and a keen cinematic eye, Polsky’s film is engaging in a theatrical as well as a journalistic sense. The images are almost too wild to believe, while the profiteering outsiders and suspicious rulers of the local Moscow fiefdom clearly never were rowing in the same direction.

Red Penguins is a wild and crazy story well told, especially in the first half, by Polsky, who is emerging as a gifted documentarian. Thanks to loads of action-packed archive footage and revealing contemporary interviews, this is a unique and powerful portrayal of a recent era of Russian and American history, which has led to a lasting legacy of distrust between the two. Above all, Red Penguins evokes a strange, surreal and macabre era, replete with chaos, criminals and capitalists. And hockey players.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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