October 22, 2019

Holiday movie preview: Politics, uprisings and enemies

The mixture of films this holiday season includes some that promise to rev up audience adrenaline and others that will provide much food for thought.

The sport of ice hockey as it was played in the former Soviet Union is examined in the film “Red Army.” As the movie documents the story of the Red Army team, it mirrors the parallel shifts in the Soviet political system, leading to the eventual collapse of the USSR.

Filmmaker Gabe Polsky, a son of Soviet-Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, said he was once a competitive hockey player, including as a student at Yale University, and when he first saw a tape of the Soviet hockey team, he was completely “mind blown.”

“For me, it was like a religious experience,” Polsky said. “The creativity that they demonstrated on the ice was far beyond what I’d ever seen in North America. It was tremendous — the skill level, the improvisation — it was like art on the ice, like ballet or a symphony. And that was really inspiring, and it really made me want to know more about this team and my own roots.

“I wondered why there was such creativity on the ice when they lived in such an oppressive society. And, on the other hand, in the United States, the hockey was so confining and limiting, but yet the society was free, and I found that kind of curious.”

Polsky added that when he learned more about the Soviet team, he realized there was a much bigger story than he had originally thought.

“It had very little to do with hockey and a lot to do with the story of the Soviet Union, and hockey was simply a window into this story,” he said. “I learned, not just how this team lived, but how life was in the Soviet Union, and about Russia and the Russians, and the relationship to the West, in the past, present, and even now. And it really was kind of a window into the Russian soul, to be honest with you, and that allowed me to understand my roots a bit better. Because when I was a kid, it was still the Cold War, albeit the tail end of it, but it wasn’t cool to have parents from the Soviet Union.” 

Polsky, who was born in the United States, explained that the Soviet government wanted the world to view its team as superior to teams from the West as a way of proving its political superiority. So the film also examines issues related to the Cold War through the prism of hockey.

“Ideologically, the players on this team were taught to basically service their country. That is their main goal, to serve the motherland, whereas you don’t see that necessarily where we’re from, and the whole idea of the team was to promote the ideology of the Soviet Union and to spread it.” The players weren’t thinking as individuals, or about who scored the most goals, he said. “It was more about the collective, the teamwork.” 

Whereas, by comparison, “The incentives in the West are for individual achievement, not the group achievement necessarily.”

The film unfolds primarily from the vantage point of Slava Fetisov, who was one of the heroes of the Red Army team and is now a senator in Russia. The movie shows how rigorous the players’ training was, and how their lives were tightly controlled. 

“They were treated with very little respect and human dignity,” Polsky said, “and if they wanted to play on this team, they had to live in a training base 11 months out of the year — they couldn’t see their families, they couldn’t really question authority, which was very much what was going on in the Soviet Union at the time, too.”

But, with the advent in the 1980s of perestroika — the restructuring of the Soviet system — things began to change for the Red Army team. There was an economic crisis, and the government stopped funding hockey. 

“They were looking for money everywhere,” Polsky said, “and it was the first time the players could even think of playing in the United States and the NHL. And once they started that process of looking into that, the Soviet Union wanted to sell the players to America and, basically, take all of the money. So they were basically slaves, and Slava Fetisov, among a couple of other guys, was rebelling against this, which was also a big threat, to their families and themselves. 

“There was more freedom — there was a little bit more freedom of speech, the press was opening up a little bit. But it couldn’t change overnight, and there were still threats everywhere.”  

When the team came to play in the United States, the differences in the way of life were startling to the Soviets. Now, according to Polsky, everything has turned.

“Now they’re almost more individualistic than Americans are, because their whole society flipped over. It’s all about money and materialism, and so on.”

Polsky believes that, among other things, his film might give audiences another way to look at sports.

“Secondly, I think that they’ll learn something that they’ve never known before about history and about these human beings who accomplished tremendous achievements, but, at the same time, paid a huge price. 

“I think this film will put a face on Russia and Russians, and who these people are. And that’s important if we want to move forward.”

“Red Army” opens for a brief Oscar-qualifying run on Dec. 12.

Just as perestroika restructured the Soviet Union, the women’s movement accomplished a great deal toward restructuring our society. The early years of the movement, from 1966 to 1971, are chronicled in the documentary “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.”

“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” Photo by Virginia Blaisdell

There have been numerous PBS programs about the subject, and a few regional films, but, in the words of director Mary Dore, “I just felt like, why had there never been a big, all-encompassing film about this extraordinary movement that changed the world? As we’ve seen over the past decades, the women’s movement is not considered cool, it’s not considered fashionable. It certainly wasn’t during the making of the film. Right now, fortuitously, and we are so lucky for this, suddenly it’s having a bit of a moment again. And that’s great, but that has certainly not been my experience while trying to raise funds for this film. Raising funds for this film was — agony is about the closest I can come to describing it.”

Dore continued: “People really didn’t think that it was important enough, or [felt] it had been done before. And, frankly, I have to say … the history of the women’s movement is not held in the same regard as other important movements that originated in the ’60s, and that’s just the sad truth.”

Historians often point out that the civil rights movement sparked awareness of the need for empowerment by other groups, as well, Dore said, including women. “And when they started realizing how secondary their roles were in many groups, including a lot of left-wing groups, the connections were there for them to see.”

The unexpected sexism that men in the progressive movements exhibited, Dore said, was one of the catalysts spurring women to begin organizing around issues of civil rights for themselves. These issues included job discrimination, equal pay, reproductive rights, rape prevention and treatment of victims, child care and divorce laws.

In 1969, a group of 12 women started researching subjects involving health care and the female body. That ultimately led to the publication of their book, “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” which has by now sold millions of copies worldwide.

Dore pointed out that although the advent of the feminist movement brought about revolutionary changes to the world, many of the battles women thought were won are re-emerging in the face of a right-wing backlash.

“We have a lot of battles going on right now,” Dore said, “reproductive rights, not just for abortion, but even issues around the idea that [some] women can’t even get birth control because Hobby Lobby gets to make those decisions for you … if you work for them. … I believe, like Virginia Whitehill, one of the interviewees in our film, says, that the two emancipators of women are the vote, which needs to be used, of course, and reproductive rights.” 

Dore added that increasing awareness of rape on campus as well as in the military has shown “there’s a lot of violence against women in various ways. And that seems to be larger than ever. It may just be reported more, but it’s extremely, extremely distressing and needs to be addressed. And, of course, there’s issues like women getting paid less; the fact that the [Equal Rights Amendment] hasn’t passed; I mean, there’s no lack of things for people to be working for in terms of women’s rights.”

Dore’s film is also replete with Jewish women who, in addition to such celebrities as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, helped found the movement. “Vivian Rothstein is only one generation away from people fleeing the Holocaust, as I recall. And Vilunya Diskin … one of the women from ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,’ was … I think, a Holocaust orphan who had come to the United States and was adopted.”  

Dore added that Muriel Fox, who is Jewish, said in an interview that did not get included in the film, that “one of the main motivators for her was not just the jobs, it was that her mother was the most miserable person who ever lived because she was stuck being a housewife, a job that did not suit her.”

Dore said the philosophy of the movie is that you can organize to change things. “That’s truly the message I want people to take away: that you don’t have to be passive, and you don’t have to be cynical. I want people to be energized by it, and I want them to realize that, as Mary Jean Collins, who’s a wonderful organizer out of Chicago, says in the film, ‘I want people to know that you can change the world, because I saw it happen.’ ” 

“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” opens Dec. 12. 

The women’s movement is absent from a montage celebrating worldwide campaigns for change, including the American, French and Russian revolutions, the American civil rights movement and the peaceful resistance of Gandhi, among numerous others, that opens the documentary “We Are the Giant.” The movie is a tribute to the anti-government uprisings known as the Arab Spring, as described by activists from three Muslim countries.

Zainab and Maryamal Khawaja in “We Are The Giant”

Director Greg Barker makes use of graphic footage from the heart of demonstrations that were sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent, but always carried out in the face of harsh, often brutal, government reaction. His subjects speak in English and Arabic (with English subtitles). 

In the film, a man called Osama pays homage to his son, Muhannad, who died at age 21 fighting against Gadhafi’s rule in Benghazi, Libya. The struggle against Assad of Syria is seen through the eyes of two men, Motaz and Ghassan, who profess their commitment to peaceful dissent as the battles become increasingly violent. And two sisters from Bahrain, Maryam and Zainab Al-Khawaja, become increasingly passionate in their activity against the monarchy in Bahrain. As Maryam works for her cause outside her country, Zainab participates in protests at home and is repeatedly imprisoned, while their father, who has been tortured, is serving a life sentence for his activism.

“We Are the Giant” opens Dec. 12.

The unofficial pursuit of a Muslim terrorist is depicted in “Dying of the Light.” As the movie begins, CIA agent Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage) is being interrogated and tortured in Beirut by the radical Banir (Alexander Karim). Twenty-two years later, we see Lake giving pep talks to new agency recruits. Relegated to a desk job, Lake desperately wants to get back in the field, but his behavior is becoming erratic, and he is urged to retire. When his young colleague (Anton Yelchin) gets information indicating that Banir, long believed dead, is actually alive, Lake embarks on an unauthorized mission to find the terrorist and kill him. In an odd twist of fate, both he and Banir turn out to have fatal illnesses: Lake suffers from a brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s, while Banir is dying of a rare blood disease.

Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin and Irene Jacob in “Dying of the Light” Photo courtesy of Red Granite Pictures

“Dying of the Light” opens in theaters and On Demand Dec. 5.

Billed as an action-comedy, “The Interview” centers on two men, host Dave Skylark (James Franco) and producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen, who also co-directs with Evan Goldberg), both of whom are in charge of a tabloid television show called “Skylark Tonight.” They learn that dictator Kim Jong-un of North Korea is a fan of the show, and they manage to obtain an interview with him, hoping to establish themselves as legitimate journalists. But the CIA enlists the two, who are totally unqualified for the assignment, to assassinate him.

From left: James Franco and Seth Rogen in “The Interview” Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In an article on the website Collider, Rogen is quoted as saying that everything in the movie about North Korea is real, and, “We made up zero facts about North Korean culture, behavior or the belief system.”

“The Interview” opens Dec. 25.

Finally, Angelina Jolie directs “Unbroken,” about the life of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who was imprisoned during World War II by the Japanese. In the movie, Zamperini is befriended on his way to the prison camp by pilot Frank A. Tinker, who is also an opera singer.

Jack O’Connell in “Unbroken” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

“Unbroken” opens Dec. 25.