Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Seeing is Believing: The 16th Man
Toward the goal posts the oblong ball flies, turning end over end. Hanging in the balance of the drop kick is a rugby match, a World Cup title and maybe, just maybe, the ability for whites and blacks to coexist peacefully in South Africa. The year is 1995. The location is Johannesburg. The venue is Ellis Park. In attendance is Nelson Mandela, who in his second year as South Africa’s first black president seeks to unite his divided country through sport. Does the ball go through the goal posts? Almost 15 years later, Desmond Tutu closes his eyes, imagines the ball in flight and exclaims “Yeah!” As he does so, an expression of profound satisfaction washes over his face. Is Tutu, the 1984 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, rejoicing over the massive social and political impact of that game-winning kick? Or is he simply celebrating the goal itself, as great moment in sport? There’s no way of knowing. That’s what makes Tutu’s reaction, captured in the documentary The 16th Man, so poignant.
The 16th Man is the latest release in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, and it has the blessing and the curse of chronicling the same story of nation-healing through rugby that was recently dramatized in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. On the positive side, our familiarity with Mandela’s politically risky endorsement of the Springboks rugby team, and their subsequent World Cup title run, allows us to have an immediate emotional bond with the documentary’s principal players, enabling the film to affect more deeply than it might have otherwise. On the negative side, however, the still fresh memory of Morgan Freeman’s Oscar nominated performance as Nelson Mandela casts a shadow over The 16th Man that it never escapes. Director Clifford Bestall utilizes archival footage of Mandela wherever possible, but there’s not enough of it to erase the nagging feeling that the documentary is sorely lacking the personality of the one person most central to its story. Whereas Invictus thrives by making Mandela accessible through Freeman’s performance, The 16th Man winds up treating Mandela like a distant, mostly inaccessible historical figure. It’s not an improvement.
To be fair, in this respect there was only so much Bestall could do. Mandela has retired from public life and is reportedly in poor health. Thus, Mandela couldn’t join Tutu or Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (portrayed by Matt Damon in Invictus) or any of the other players in reflecting back on the 1995 World Cup. Still, the decision to use Freeman (who produced the documentary) as the film’s highly-involved narrator comes off like a misguided attempt to replace Mandela’s genuine magnanimity with the Hollywood version. No disrespect to Freeman intended, but it isn’t the same thing. Freeman, or the other talking heads, can talk all they want about what the World Cup meant to Mandela, but it isn’t the same thing has experiencing those feelings with Mandela, the way we experience Tutu’s joy over that kick or James Small’s tight-throated emotion over his memories of touring Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island. Furthermore, Freeman’s narration often has the dry tone of a History Channel examination of battlefield tactics, which can make The 16th Man feel closer to a middle school social studies lesson than to great cinema.
That said, let there be no question, The 16th Man is much less problematic than Invictus, the film in which Eastwood reduced the racial tensions of apartheid into the stuff of a cheesy after-school special, with an ungodly amount of repetitive crowd shots on the side. In less than 52 minutes, Bestall sets his stage expertly, putting the 1995 World Cup in proper context – apartheid, Robben Island, racism, bitterness, apprehension, etc – while still leaving ample time to experience the thrills of the sporting event itself. To see highlights of the Springboks’ unlikely title run in Bestall’s film is to appreciate the faithfulness with which Eastwood recreated these same scenes in Invictus. And yet there’s a purity, not to mention an efficiency, to these genuine highlights that gives the images some added weight. Just when you come across a story that seems too good to be true, Bestall almost always delivers the visual evidence necessary to erase your cynicism, forcing you to accept the possibility of the seemingly impossible – an all too appropriate feat considering that Mandela did the same when he conceived of uniting blacks and whites in South Africa through the support of a rugby team once thought to be a symbol of white power. The gravity and foresight of that decision is almost impossible to appreciate, even in retrospect.
All these years later, even Tutu marvels that the poetry and the history of the 1995 World Cup can be one and the same. “Who would have ever imagined that people would be dancing in the streets in Soweto for a rugby victory of a Springbok side?” he asks rhetorically. “But they did!” Indeed, the events detailed here are so spectacular, so dramatic, so, well, Hollywoodish that perhaps only the journalistic tone of a documentary can do them justice. How else can one really believe in Mandela’s helicopter visit during a Springboks practice, or in the theatrics of the double-overtime final match, or in the way the mostly white crowd in Ellis Park chanted Mandela’s name? The 16th Man doesn’t provide what Werner Herzog would term “an accountant’s truth” of events, but it makes the legend especially difficult to disbelieve, fantastic though it is.
And whereas Invictus tries to evoke post-apartheid racial tensions through an insultingly on-the-nose subplot involving white and black members of Mandela’s security detail repeatedly looking at one another suspiciously and then bonding over rugby themselves, The 16th Man provides dynamic characters like Bekebeke, a black man who killed a white policeman and openly rooted for the Springboks to lose because of his hatred of whites, and like Koos Botha, a former conservative leader in South Africa who bombed an integrated school and once longed to see Mandela hanged. The 1995 World Cup unfolded in genuinely turbulent times, after all, and instead of shying away from that The 16th Man gives us a better feel for the ferocity of the scrum. Bestall’s documentary misses the first-person memories of Mandela, sure, but it doesn’t miss the point. It might not always provide awesome filmmaking, but it never ceases to deliver an awesome story.
The 16th Man premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.