Sport

In no particular order, here are five sports films to watch this summer.

By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Sports films to keep the summer alive

Boxer Muhammad Ali in When We Were Kings.
Credit: DAS Films / David Sonenberg Prod / Collection Christophel via AFP

A resurging virus and an Ashes series decided after barely 12 days: it’s hardly the summer we wanted. But assuming you’re on some kind of holiday – or perhaps trapped in home quarantine – here are five of my favourite sports films, each vastly more entertaining than watching England’s tortured submission.

 

The Damned United (2009)

In 1974, Brian Clough was announced the new manager of Leeds United, then football champions of England. It was an awkward appointment. Inheriting a squad that he’d repeatedly denounced as cheating thugs, Clough was also taking over a club mourning the loss of its father figure, Don Revie, who’d successfully led them for more than a decade.

The eccentrically self-possessed Clough – equipped with a cruel and silver tongue – refused to mollify tensions. In Clough’s eyes, and he wasn’t alone, Revie was a soulless villain whose success was attained by cultivating the shameless brutality of his players. Clough would impose a tactical and philosophical reformation.

There’s debate about the precise wording of Clough’s opening speech to his new players, but The Damned United gets the gist: “You lot may all be internationals, and have won all the domestic honours there are to win under Don Revie. But as far as I’m concerned, the first thing you can do for me is chuck all your medals … into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find. Because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by cheating.”

The players rebelled and Clough was sacked after 44 days. The Damned United fixes on those seven dramatic weeks and boasts Michael Sheen’s brilliant impersonation of Clough (even if Sheen’s performance sweetly bevels the edges of his acerbic and alcoholic subject). It also captures the distinctive charm and obsessiveness of Clough, who would, after his ignominious departure from Leeds, soon accomplish with his next club, Nottingham Forest, something never achieved before or since with a British club: the winning of two consecutive European Cups.

It’s an undemanding film, and conspicuously sunnier than the novel it’s adapted from, but just as charming as Clough was at his best.

Lenny Cooke (2013)

Lenny Cooke was once a basketball prodigy, hyped as the best high school player in the United States – ahead of peers LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. Those last three names are now famous, and James has claim to being the game’s greatest ever player. But Lenny Cooke?

In the early noughties, documentary maker Adam Shopkorn ingratiated himself with Cooke and his foster family, following him to training, games and scout camps. We see both his talent and youthful swagger, neither touched by maturity. He’s aware of his gift and who needs the advice of elders when you’ve been kissed by destiny?

Later, after Cooke fails selection in the 2002 NBA draft, he drifts to the NBA’s development league and then, the dream ebbing, to China and the Philippines. Several injuries follow before a car accident, subsequent coma and a leg injury that narrowly avoids amputation. By this point, Shopkorn had abandoned his project and shelved his footage.

Which is where the Safdie brothers – directors of Uncut Gems – pick up the story a decade later, with the help of Shopkorn’s exhumed tapes. The brothers spend extensive time with Cooke and find him a hundred pounds heavier and variously bewildered, embittered and nostalgic.

There’s almost a dream-like quality to the film, which in its exclusive dependence upon verité footage is beautifully restrained. It doesn’t seek to explain something that’s still slightly mysterious to its subject; nor does it employ pompous, exaggeratedly authoritative talking heads to fill in the gaps. Which is good, because it seems to me that those personal gaps, regrets, mysteries and delusions are the story itself.

 

When We Were Kings (1996)

A famous documentary about a famous fight: 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, between the heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman, and the ageing challenger Muhammad Ali. A conventional sports documentary, it’s enlivened by the richness of its subject, the archival footage, and the distinction of its talking heads, who include Spike Lee, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. But its star, of course, is The Greatest.

The man who once boasted that you could never hit him, who had danced around his opponents with liquid grace, was now, at 32, far less capable of balletic evasions. So in Zaire, as the rank underdog, Ali instead secretly resolved to its opposite: he would encourage, and submit to, the prodigious pummelling of Foreman, trusting that his capacity for withstanding the violence was greater than Foreman’s stamina to acquit it.

We know it now as the rope-a-dope strategy, and as Ali submissively leaned back on the ropes, absorbing Foreman’s blows, any of which would easily hospitalise you or me, he provoked his opponent further: Is that all you’ve got, George? And eventually, it was all he had: in the eighth round, Ali sprang off the ropes and felled his exhausted opponent.

But the documentary is about much more than the fight: there’s promoter Don King’s outsized and amoral influence, the politics of collaborating with Zaire’s president – a brutal autocrat, eager to launder the reputation of his country – and the cultural receipt and interpretations of the two fighters.

But lest we too narrowly glorify Ali’s victory  and ignore the accumulated cost of his gift, here’s the wonderful Garry Wills writing about Ali in 1999: “This most articulate of men, who trained his young body as a holy thing, now lives inarticulate in the wreckage of that superb body, undone by the very skills it acquired … When I met Ali after his decay had set in, I was so disturbed that I decided never to watch a boxing match again.”

 

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs The New York Knicks (2010)

There are more original documentaries in ESPN’s “30 for 30” series (June 17th, 1994), more touching (Once Brothers), and much deeper and more reflective (OJ: Made in America), but few are as much fun.

Celebrating the mid-’90s rivalry between the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks, Winning Time distils much of the rivalry to the theatrical combativeness between Pacers star Reggie Miller and Knicks superfan Spike Lee, who, agitatedly pacing the sidelines during their playoff games, would both torment – and be tormented by – “Knick Killer” Miller.

Their passion was real but is recollected now in tranquility, or something like it. Too often documentary makers vainly hope that talking heads will confer authority and insight, but in Winning Time these heads make it. Miller and Lee are both sharp and charming raconteurs, and in recalling their famous dispute – artfully spliced with thrilling footage – they winkingly milk its drama.

I’m sure many would promote 2020’s The Last Dance above this, but for all of its access, length and previously unreleased footage, Netflix’s 10-part series on the final season of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls remained a Jordan-controlled hagiography and something that felt rigid and false. Winning Time isn’t secretly gripped by its subjects’ egotistically controlling hands – as far as I know – and generously revels in the fun of fandom.

 

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006)

Depending on who you speak to, the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France is mostly remembered for Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi’s chest, his subsequent red card and the speculation about what, exactly, the Italian had said to provoke such self-destructive retaliation. But what I can’t get out of my mind from that game is Zidane’s penalty in the seventh minute.

French striker Thierry Henry had just gone down in the box after minimal contact and a penalty was awarded. Up stepped the captain Zidane, one of the game’s greatest ever players, and who, at the age of 34, was playing his last professional match – which just happened to be a World Cup final.

Before a televised audience of hundreds of millions, Zidane chose not to smash the penalty hard and low to the left or right post – the most conventional and effective option – but instead impudently, outrageously, chipped the ball over the diving keeper. It almost didn’t work: the ball clipped the crossbar, rebounded down over the line, and spun itself back out. 1-0 France. Almost 20 years later, I still think about this chutzpah. Who does that?   

Many films or documentaries fail, I think, because they can’t intuit the most appropriate form for their subject. Which is to say, many films feel like a convention – or a cookie cutter – looking for a subject to impose themselves on, and the distinctive subjects become muted, trivialised or blanched by the imposition. Most rock bio pics are like this. Probably most war films, too.

Zidane won’t appeal to many. It’s an unconventional film and about an unconventional man, neither perfect. But if the film is unconventional, it’s also very simple: during a 2005 La Liga match between Zidane’s Real Madrid and Villarreal, 17 cameras were trained, intimately and unwaveringly, upon its hero for the game’s duration. This fixation effectively vanishes the match, and so we watch Zidane’s skill without context – it’s 90 minutes of watching Zidane run, jog, stroll, pass, shoot and sweat. But Scottish post-rockers Mogwai provide a gorgeously hypnotic score, and the grandeur and strange impassivity of this genius is captured, fleetingly, even if it lacks the drama of that World Cup final.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 8, 2022 as "Watching brief".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.