Tragic yet hilarious documentary 'Red Penguins' must be seen to be believed

'Red Penguins,' premiering at TIFF, tells the jaw-dropping tale of the Pittsburgh Penguins/Red Army partnership, which includes bears serving drinks, strippers, the Russian mob, unsolved murders and more.
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Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

Something you don’t see every time you go to the movies: the director, standing on a stage, in front of the big screen, raising a shot glass minutes before the show begins. Gabe Polsky did exactly that last Thursday during the Toronto International Film Festival at the world premiere of Red Penguins, his new documentary.

Toasting the audience and downing the glass’ contents, Polsky emitted the vibe of a survivor who'd been through a heavy experience. The moment rang especially true after watching Red Penguins, a tale so strange, scary and funny that no one would’ve believed it if presented as fiction. The process to make it was just as wild and unpredictable.

The story drops us into the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. The population sits in a state of utter disarray, poverty and violence as it adjusts to a capitalist economy. Amid the chaos comes the potential for some bizarre business opportunities never possible during the Communist years. The Pittsburgh Penguins ownership, including Thomas Ruta and Howard Baldwin, see a unique opportunity. The Russians’ beloved hockey team, the government-run CSKA Moscow, a.k.a The Red Army, has fallen on hard times, having lost many of its best players to the NHL. The Penguins go all-in on a partnership with the Red Army, rebrand it the Russian Penguins and begin to reconstruct a functional pro hockey team, with the legendary Viktor Tikhonov still on board as head coach and long-time GM Valery Gushin still controlling the player personnel.

The Penguins need a brave young mind to send to Moscow and establish the team’s branding and promotion. The perfect choice is Steven Warshaw, the franchise’s executive vice-president of marketing. He’s brash, creative, charismatic and utterly fearless. From the moment he arrives, he experiments with an out-there list of ideas to make the team profitable. The result is everything from bears serving drinks to “cheerleaders” who put on stripteases for the fans during intermissions unbeknownst to Tikhonov while he's in the dressing room. Talk about stranger than fiction. Warshaw turns the torn-down Ice Palace into the hottest ticket in Moscow, a place to drink and party and win pipe-dream prizes such as cars – while taking in hockey games.

The journey of the Russian Penguins into pop-culture prominence is very much Warshaw’s story, and that’s why Polsky makes him the documentary’s protagonist. But the narrative takes jaw-dropping turns. Gushin and Warshaw forge a friendship managing the team together, but Gushin also represents the old-guard Soviet establishment, which sees the Red Army as its team, regardless of any partnership, and will do anything to keep things that way. That means stealing millions of dollars, bringing in the mafia, spying on the Americans and even committing murder – all while Warshaw, a peppy, pint-sized Jewish executive from New York, is right in the middle of it, smile on his face, embracing the challenge. The struggle for power and the bizarre ‘frenemy’ relationship between Warshaw and Gushin forges the heart of Red Penguins.

“When you see yourself on film, it’s creepy,” Warshaw said in Toronto last week, roughly 25 years after the events depicted. “But at the same time, I realize I was the center of this madness, this mayhem and skulduggery in Moscow. To have Gushin as my foil was perfect. You have the energetic, eccentric, crazy New Yorker heading to the evil empire to work with the greatest hockey team of all-time. And you’re up against these old Communists that want no part of you.

“We loved each other. But at the same time, he was a Soviet, and he let me know it many times, that Americans were the enemy, and that no matter how close we got, he could never trust me, because I’m an American. It was painful. It was basically equivalent to falling in love and then having your heart broken because your partner was cheating on you.”

The Russian Penguins become a runaway hit as a franchise, even touring the IHL in North America, but the Soviets can’t shake their distrust, and the results are tragic. To say too much more about Red Penguins’ story would spoil the fascination for the uninitiated. But to tease with a few additional nuggets: Disney gets involved in the partnership, then-CEO Michael Eisner has since denied that fact, and Warshaw ends up with a bounty on his head for deciding not to accept a job offer from the Russian mob. The price is $6,500. Warshaw insists he's worth $3,000, tops.

The story is often frightening but also so absurd that it can’t be recounted without gallows humor. Gushin is particularly compelling as the film’s antagonist, a man who, in one scene, laughs fondly remembering his little buddy Warshaw, then keeps laughing when remembering he had a man spy on Warshaw for a year. What starts as warmth gradually morphs into menace. The audience laughs because it’s funny, then laughs because it’s getting weird. Red Penguins has many moments in which unreliable narrators recount events through drastically different lenses.

“You’ve got to lean on what’s happening,” Polsky said. “Instead of trying to make the story be factually correct, you’ve got to see where it’s going. If it’s going toward that unreliability, then f---in amplify that, make it even bigger, lean on it and make it more uncomfortable. If it’s a little bit awkward, make it even more awkward. I like ambiguity and mystery.”

For Polsky, that was the only way to tell the tale, because it’s one specifically about culture clash, something deeply personal to him. As the American son of immigrants from Soviet Ukraine, he experienced cultural contrast as a kid every time he left his parents’ house and visited a friend’s house. In Red Penguins, he shares that feeling with the audience by juxtaposing the clashing perspectives from the Soviet and American sides.

So how does a filmmaker go about telling such a multilayered story? Polsky is best known for treading Russian territory already, having made the award-winning documentary Red Army in 2014, but that didn’t give him any “ins” for Red Penguins. Polsky bristles at the idea the two films are linked or companion pieces in any way. They exist independently of each other. He started Red Penguins from scratch – to the point he arrived in Russia with no plan, no interviews lined up and no one from the Russian government knowing he was in town.

Polsky pieced together interviews day by day with the help of co-producer Dmitry Saltykovsky. Polsky didn’t feel overly safe during the process – as you see when one of his interviews gets interrupted mid-film. But he gutted it out and found some remarkable interview subjects – none more surprising than a “businessman,�� speaking under an alias, who once landed on Interpol’s most-wanted list and had an intimate understanding of the mafia’s power in Moscow and hold over the hockey team.

“We go to the restaurant, and there’s no one in there but him,” Polsky said. “It was intense and weird, but it turned out the guy was incredibly generous, feeding us. You know how that is? A guy can be so nice and feel like your dad, and who knows what he’s doing behind the scenes?”

Red Penguins is packed with dichotomies like that. Every scene presents a clash of sorts: Soviets vs. Americans, communism versus capitalism, hilarity vs. catastrophe. And that’s why it’s such a memorable watch.

“Even when I was reading through the documents, I knew it was going to be this bizarre, dark, darkly humorous, paradoxical story that had many dimensions,” Polsky said. “That’s what I think a great movie is. I love movies that can make you laugh but be scared and also get you excited a little bit.”

Red Penguins will screen again at TIFF Sept. 14.

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