"The USA have made it in a Hollywood-style finish!" yelled match commentator Ian Darke in the elated moments after Landon Donovan's game-winning, group-winning strike in stoppage time against Algeria two weeks ago at the World Cup in South Africa. It's something you hear all the time in sports: A commentator, looking to make his point a bold one, yells, "Eat your heart out Hollywood," or, "All the Hollywood scriptwriters couldn't draw up a better ending than that!"
There is some truth to it. Real life is always more dramatic simply because there is a real chance that the amazing simply won't happen. Donovan was hardly a sure bet to score that goal and lift a nation; Doug Flutie's Hail Mary shouldn't have been caught; Aaron Boone wasn't supposed to hit a home run against Tim Wakefield. But, that's life.
In the movie world, Charlie Conway's triple deke was predestined to work against the Hawks, and Crewe was always going to lead the prisoners to a touchdown over that Longest Yard. In the movie, they were always going to win one for the Gipper. There was never any doubt about it. That's Hollywood.
But are the commentators right? Can Hollywood not do any better when it comes to soccer and the movies?
In the case of Fever Pitch, David Evans' film of Nick Hornby's book about the author's troublesome relationships with his family, women and, most importantly, his football club, Arsenal, they didn't try to do any better — they didn't need to. Mickey Thomas did the work for them in real life, winning the league with almost the last kick of the English season and sending Paul (Colin Firth) screaming like a mad man around his apartment and he makes peace with both his football team and his girlfriend. But that all happened in real life, too. The film was about the obsessive Paul, not Mickey Thomas or Arsenal.
But does an English film count as Hollywood? Not bloody likely.
When Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film was released two months ago, it spread across the Internet like wildfire, capturing the attention — and downloads — of millions of people around the world. But it wasn't his 2010 Cannes entry, Biutiful, starring Javier Bardem. It was a three-minute commercial for Nike, starring the likes of Gael García Bernal, Roger Federer and even Homer Simpson, called Write the Future. Dubbed by Slate writer Seth Stevenson "the greatest ad I've ever seen," Future is about what one single moment can mean to a country.
Two years earlier, Guy Ritchie helmed the equally fantastic Take It to the Next Level campaign for Nike, a first-person account of an unnamed Dutch striker's ascent from nowhere to playing for Holland after he is scouted by Arsenal manager Arséne Wenger.
These commercials are probably the most interesting and exciting films either moviemaker has made in a decade. They have passion, a heart beating at the center that you hope to find in every film but rarely do. It's almost a travesty that they're TV spots. It's a minor consolation that what they're selling aren't balls or boots or jerseys; they're selling the game itself. But, once again, it's not Hollywood.
"The World Cup has captured the imagination of our country, as has the game itself in the last few years," then-President Clinton — maybe the best salesman ever — said in his opening remarks at the 1994 World Cup. "The love of soccer is now a universal language." Well, it isn't quite and certainly wasn't then. But 16 years later, we're learning — and fast — if the 15 million viewers for USA's knockout game against Ghana are any indication.
Clinton's quote is featured prominently in Brett Morgen's June 17th, 1994, part of ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series. The film is about the stunning confluence of sports stories, both triumphant and tragic (The NY Rangers Stanley Cup parade, Arnold Palmer's final US Open, the opening ceremony and matches of World Cup 1994, Game Five of the NBA Finals, and, of course, OJ) in one random summer day a decade and a half ago that just happened to be one of the most important dates in sports history. And, despite the fact that more people remember OJ, soccer was a big part of the day.
But documentaries are one thing. Hollywood is something quite different. Before Clinton's remark, Americans seemed to be more in line with Sylvester Stallone's blunt assessment of soccer in John Huston's 1981 Allies-versus-Nazis-at-soccer film, Victory: "This stinkin' game," Stallone says, "is ruining my life."
When you cast Sylvester Stallone in a movie, he's going to win. Just as when you cast Pelé in a movie or sign him to a contract, he's going to win.
Victory, co-starring Pelé, is set up around a friendly match between a ringer team of fit and healthy Nazis and a patchwork team of captured and malnourished Allies in occupied Paris. It's a propaganda match approved by the Nazi higher-ups, but the Allies' plan is to foil it by escaping at halftime. You've seen the title. You can guess what happens.
According to Mike Toole, known for the red Luchador masks he wears to USA matches, Pelé's sublime, slow motion bicycle kick to tie the match is worth it. "It's a pretty piece of cinema that showcases the great player Pelé was," says Toole from Johannesburg. "When I first saw that moment in the film, I realized that they spent millions of dollars and made a hilariously crummy movie just so Pelé could do that kick. That is the entire reason that the movie got made."
"Of course, Sylvester Stallone, all 5 feet 8 inches of him, playing in goal was funny too," says Andrew Mangan, who writes about Arsenal for oleole.com. "I've never, ever been convinced by an acted football moment. It's impossible to make it look realistic. Maybe they can now with CGI and stuff, but otherwise it's all been brutal.
"Can I buck the trend and say that football in films is always terrible?" asks Mangan, and rightly so. CGI has hardly been soccer's savior when it comes to film. In Rudo y Cursi, it's plainly obvious when Rudo (Bernal) is dribbling with a CGI ball, and the re-cutting of new footage into actual league matches is obvious to the point of distraction in 2005's Goal! The Dream Begins. The fast-paced, physical game we watch onscreen is slow, plodding and unrealistic. Even in the otherwise well made Bend It Like Beckham, the match scenes don't recreate the game.
Beckham celebrates the game and its idiosyncrasies, like, "Where dad's explaining the offside rule using table condiments," says Prairie Rose Clayton, married to Toole and famous for her stadium banners celebrating team USA, also speaking from Johannesburg. "As soon as the scene starts, Mike and I burst out laughing, because we know exactly what `co-star` Frank Harper's trying to explain, but it takes a few minutes for the joke to develop if you don't know the sport."
Like Fever Pitch, the stories with soccer are better than the ones about soccer. The 1966 World Cup threatens to ruin Bernie's Bar Mitzvah in Paul Weiland's hilarious Sixty Six, and the story of the Brazilian film The Year My Parents Went on Vacation is framed around the 1970 World Cup. The Golden Globe-nominated Goodbye Lenin! takes place around the 1990 World Cup. The 1998 World Cup leads a novice monk off the path temporarily in the Buddhist film The Cup. Even in François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, it's a soccer game that gives Antoine Doinel the window he needs to make his run for the beach.
Maybe that's the best we can hope for, that the "beautiful game" works with film, aiding the stories and, ultimately, selling the firstname.lastname@example.org