Skip to Content

CIFF Day 2: Documentaries ‘Algren’ and ‘Red Army’

CIFF Day 2: Documentaries ‘Algren’ and ‘Red Army’


Audience Q&As at a film festival can be a mixed bag. At the World Premiere screening for Tuesday night’s Algren, a man waved at Director Michael Caplan, who recognized the man from a coffee shop earlier in the day. During the Q&A for Red Army, Director Gabe Polsky charmingly asked his grandmother (correction: Babushka), in Russian, what she thought of his movie.

On the other side of the coin, they can result in tedious questions (and even more tedious answers) about getting licensing for archival material or audience members outright interrupting and berating the director, like a man who asked about the “sociology” behind Russian athletics. Sometimes people just like to hear themselves talk.

In fairness, it takes finesse to ask the right questions and tailor the right answers so you can tell a good story. This holds true for the two documentaries I watched Tuesday night at CIFF. In the case of Algren and Caplan, it’s an interesting subject in a cluttered package, a documentary that amounts to be about little more than a tribute to its hero. Red Army on the other hand strives to be so much more than a sports documentary. It has fascinating characters and a story arc that could rival most of the features at the festival, and it will win fans even for people with little interest in the subject of hockey.

Both films this evening had a Chicago tie. Algren documents the career and life of writer and journalist Nelson Algren. He’s most famous as the writer of “The Man With the Golden Arm”, “A Walk on the Wild Side” and “Chicago: City on the Rise”, but the movie reveals him as a poet of the streets, someone who could get at the ugly underbelly of the city and find pathos, complexity and beauty in the bums, whores, drunks, gamblers and drug addicts who were really just people. Though Algren doesn’t have the meme-ready fame of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson, the movie places him in their company as a writer of the American reality.

Caplan loads the film with archival footage, photographs of Algren taken by Chicago photographer Art Shay and talking-head testimony of his life story. As a young man Algren resembles a less-nebbish Woody Allen, complete with frazzled hair and thick spectacles but a little more rugged masculinity. As an aged veteran, he’s grown hefty and his hairline has further receded. And though Algren has jazzy, animated liveliness to its style, the extent to which the film talks at you and flashes Algren’s writing excerpts and achievements on screen can be exhausting. At one point the film describes visiting Algren and seeing glorious, intricate collages in his apartment, like walking into a giant scrapbook. Algren is a bit of a scrapbook movie: jumbled, unorganized and incapable of throwing any detail away, but fascinating all the same.


Red Army in comparison looks like a master class in documentary storytelling. The film is about the Red Army National hockey team of the Soviet Union, but the players’ life story, their achievements and their hardships are told entirely from the Russian perspective in a way few Americans will recognize. Hockey to the Russians was an art form, not a competition of physical strength, and Red Army elevates sporting history to an art, conveying it in terms of creativity, teamwork, loyalty and respect for one’s country and teammates.

Polsky, a Chicagoan director with a background in both hockey and Russia, starts with an interview with Slava Fetisov, one of the most decorated players in all of hockey history. Wayne Gretzky is seen here being humbled by the man, and now we watch Fetisov stare into his phone and bluntly ignore Polsky’s question in a way that makes the film immediately funny, offbeat and more than meets the eye. While Americans think they know the Miracle on Ice, they don’t recognize the creativity that went into the Soviet game, the harsh training conditions players were put under or the penalties for losing. “Our country’s crisis is reflected in hockey,” one player says, and it’s an emotionally filled ride in understanding just how deeply rooted this game and these players were to the Soviet culture and way of life.

Red Army premiered at Cannes earlier this year, and with Werner Herzog now attached as a producer, it stands to be an Oscar contender and will for sure hit theaters in late January. As for Algren, that film had its World Premiere Tuesday night. I’ll be interviewing Caplan on Thursday to understand what truly made Nelson Algren special, but like the writer himself, this documentary deserves to be pulled out from under the radar.

Also screening:

Speed Walking

From The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev is this ‘70s coming of age drama about Martin, a 14-year-old boy who has unexpectedly lost his mother to cancer. Martin’s mother is widely loved in his town, but Martin seems to be handling it better than his dad, who he suspects is already seeing someone else, and his older brother, who clings to his mother’s belongings. Her death looms large over other big moments in Martin’s life, like training for a speed walking race and discovering his sexuality along with a girl and friend. It’s a polished, surprisingly mature story, but it raises some red flags that tow the line between teenage naiveté and insensitivity. Speed Walking doesn’t fully grapple with Martin’s curious sense of discovery and leaves some depth on the table. And speed walking in high ‘70s jeans looks notoriously silly.

Winter Sleep

This Palme D’Or winning picture from Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a talkative, introspective, atmospheric and engrossing tale of human behavior and morality. It’s the story of a hotel curator and writer living in the Anatolian Mountains with his young wife and recently divorced sister. As they remain isolated over a long winter, they verbally spar and drift apart in a way that creates shocking ripple effects throughout their small, isolated community of neighbors. Ceylan’s near 200-minute film has the patience to show intense, personal conversation that cuts deep into the characters while doing so in a cinematically graceful way. “Conscience is but a word cowards use to keep the strong in line,” the film says, a scary example of how eloquently Winter Sleep conveys sprawling themes of wealth, morality and privilege in what is truly an intimate and thought provoking drama.