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.


Richard Bellamy said...

Well done. I enjoyed Invictus and feel it's a notch above an after-school special, but it certainly doesn't include those dynamic characters you cite as examples of the racial tension of that time. It's rather light fare about a country with a very serious problem, but it seems like this documentary is pithier in its presentation of those problems.

elgringo said...

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I'm hosting the My Best Post blog-a-thon.
It goes from May 21st-23rd. Want to be a part of it?
It's pretty easy. You've already written your entry.
Just send me a link to your best/favorite/underrated blog post! Thanks!


Richlet said...

I would have to say I disagree with your review of "The 16th Man". I found it to be riveting and emotional. I also thought Morgan Freeman's narration was top notch.

I much prefer to see real footage and real people discussing the emotions and ramifications at the time than a semi-doc with actors pretending to feel emotions, like in the hollywood film.

That's not to say Eastwood, didn't do a fantastic job on his film, but comparing them seems like an apples/oranges thing.

Jason Bellamy said...

Richlet: Make no mistake, I much prefer The 16th Man to Invictus. I prefer it both for its feel of historical accuracy, which stems from its format (documentary) as well as its avoidance of goofy indulgences (Invictus has a few of them). Like you, "I much prefer to see real footage and real people ..." presuming those people are interesting, and they are here.

My point, and maybe I didn't make it well, is that Invictus is built around the personality of Mandela, who is the central figure of this story. The 16th Man comes just after Invictus and tells almost exactly the same story, but it tells it without much of Mandela, which creates -- at least for me -- a sense that there's something missing from The 16th Man. This isn't to say Invictus gets it right and The 16th Man gets it wrong. It's simply to convey the idea that the recent release of Invictus creates a certain expectation that The 16th Man doesn't meet. If not for Invictus, I admit, I might not have been bothered by the lack of Mandela.

To a degree, sure, it's apples and oranges. But art doesn't happen in a vacuum. And just like I can't watch The Hurt Locker without thinking of the actual war it represents or the other recent films about that war, I can't watch The 16th Man and pretend that the experience of seeing Invictus hasn't altered my expectations and understanding of the film, positively in some cases and negatively in others.

Unknown said...

I have not seen Invictus and had never heard the story of the Springbok team, so my gut reaction to The 16th Man was not one of comparison, but rather one of sheer unbiased emotion.
This film swallowed me whole and I was absorbed into the eloquence and sincerity of it's characters, the political significance of the events, and, of course, the "David vs Goliath" storyline of the World Cup final. Hollywood writers could not dream of a better script, especially the ending. I mean, come on: the brutal elements of rugby, an "unbeatable" foe (New Zealand) cloaked in black, the pre-game Maori war dance, extra time, the crowd chanting "Nelson, Nelson". The variety of emotions that this story brought forth ran the gamut from sadness, hatred and compassion, to hope, inspiration and tear-stained joy.
It is so ironic that I stumbled upon Belamy's review as during the film I thought to myself that the story of the team could stand alone as the main event. But in retrospect, I understand why the film emphasized Mandela - he inspired a team and united a nation. I am left inspired and motivated to be a better citizen of the world.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment, Bill. Mandela certainly is the central figure. But one wonders if part of the reason he's so central to Invictus is because it was such an ideal part for Morgan Freeman -- a movie star. That's not a criticism of Freeman. The part was his to take. But Invictus, while making Mandela accessible, gives him frightfully little to do ... other than wave ... and wave ... and wave. And did I mention waving?

I enjoyed The 16th Man, but, oh, what it would have meant to have Mandela providing his personal memories!

Pedro Henrique Gomes said...

I really don't like this film. But both Freeman and Damon are very powerfull.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this "cool" site,since after mesmerizingly watching "The 16th Man" solo,I felt compelled to share my deep gratitude for its refreshing take on our problematical humanity with someone,possibly with the great Clifford Bestall himself(but from just a cursory tour of your site and your great "16th Man" review, no wonder elgringo sent you a "My Best Post blog-a-thon" invitation!).
I had missed seeing "Invictus",and had never heard of the subsequent
"16th Man", since until recently I had only been going to movie theatres due to exorcising the boob tube from my life,but now it has raised its ugly head again with my fiancee's cable service including free movie/programs like Daystar,documentaries,etc., bloating a cinephile/alt news person like me with infotainment overload.
But it brings me to one of the profoundly inspirational points of "The 16th Man"--motivating me to be more disciplined with my gym/home work out routines after watching the miraculous athletic "feats" of the South African rugby team warriors!
But to continue,what Mr.Bestall said in his afterword to the cable showing of "The 16th Man" was also what I felt was the spiritual genius of former Pres.Mandela in using what to my jaded eyes is one of the professional franchise sports,rugby (that the powers that be elevate to a celebrity religion status--as justification for exorbitant salaries and lifestyles?)
This gem of a masterpiece also inspires me to read a good biography of Mr.Mandela, since evidently he (and no doubt from the international support he received)stored up great spiritual wisdom during his 27 years of imprisonment to use what reality presented him-rugby-(just like David used a stone)as a potent, spiritual force to make real progress fighting the Goliath of racial anger to bring about racial reconciliation (and we hope,eventually, true justice?) that was desperately needed in the post-arpatheid election "Far Right" violence and divisiveness.
I could go on, but some of the comments that stayed with me from this powerful documentary was from the coach, "[the matches]were not to be enjoyed,but endured";Mr. Mandela,"they [the Afrikaaners][loved] rugby more than guns" and also Mr. Mandela's high estimation of professional sports as being elevated above governments,
politicians,etc. for their power to unite peoples.