The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

The Oscars And The Case of 3 Chicago Documentaries

By Selena Fragassi in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 18, 2015 3:45PM

A scene from Red Army (Photo provided by Sony Classics)

While this weekend’s Academy Awards are not without controversy—you might recall Selma star David Oyelowo’s scathing commentary topping the chatter about the egregious lack of black nominees this year—perhaps another puzzling category for Chicagoans is the feature documentary award.

This year’s list includes a big nod for Finding Vivian Maier, a film by Gene Siskel’s nephew Charlie Siskel and John Maloof following the trail of the North Shore nanny who had a hidden photographic legacy. Yet even more prominent exclusions were given to the Roger Ebert bio doc Life Itself, directed by Hoop Dreams alum Steve James, and Red Army, the story of the Soviet Union’s ice hockey dynasty during the Cold War, which was written, directed and produced by Chicago native Gabe Polsky.

The snub for Red Army is particularly intriguing. The 85-minute film was executive produced by honcho Jerry Weintraub and documentary legend Werner Herzog, both as gilded to the Academy as its Oscar statues. Critically speaking, the feature was one of the best reviewed of 2014 with a consistent 95-100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and featured in the official selections for a number of festivals, including Cannes. It also nabbed Audience Awards at the 2014 AFI, Chicago and Middleburg fests. Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter simply said, “It’s one of the best documentaries that I have ever seen.”

The movie is a comparative look at sports and politics and follows the relentless Soviet hockey team throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a team, which included legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov and players such as Slava Fetisov, the first Soviet citizen invited to play in the National Hockey League. They were perhaps most remembered for losing to the U.S. Olympic squad in 1980.

Growing up in Chicago, Polsky’s first experience with the team was catching a game on a VHS tape when he was 15. It ultimately changed him, leading him to play hockey for Yale before he became a filmmaker, in recent years creating award-winning titles such as His Way and The Motel Life before finding more mainstream success with Red Army.

“The legacy of Soviet hockey was a miracle itself — not just the dominance, but the artistic achievement that was demonstrated on the ice. The way they played was a revolution in creativity in sport, and that was forgotten in North America. And I found that to be somewhat tragic. … I wondered how in such a brutally oppressive system that such free and open improvisational hockey could exist,” Polsky told a reporter at Washington’s Top News.

Red Army screens at the Music Box Theatre all this week. Catch the Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. on ABC 7.