Movie Review: ‘Pelé’ is an Enjoyable Documentary that Still Leaves More to be Desired
Director: Ben Nicholas, David Tryhorn
Synopsis: Looks back at the extraordinary 12-year period in which Pelé, the only man to win three World Cup titles, went from young superstar in 1958 to national hero in 1970; a radical yet turbulent era in Brazil’s history.
In the last year, we’ve seen a proliferation of films and mini-series that tell the stories of some of the most influential athletes of all time. The likes of Michel Jordan, Lance Armstrong, and Tiger Woods have gotten the treatment from Netflix, ESPN, and HBO. We can now add one of the all-time great footballers to that list with this week’s Netflix release of Pelé, a documentary film about the legend during his prime. While the film certainly succeeds in showing us how amazing the Brazilian star was at this height, it comes up short with some of the personal and sociological details.
I must admit that I’m not as familiar with football (or soccer, as it’s weirdly named in the U.S.) as some other sports. However, I’m fascinated by the FIFA World Cup and the sheer popularity of the sport worldwide. And anybody that has even a fleeting interest in the sport should know who Pelé is. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, he burst onto the scene at just 18 years old when he led Brazil to the World Cup in 1958. He would go on to win two more and become one of the greatest footballers of all time, setting the stage for Brazil’s continued success in the World Cup, where the country still holds the most titles.
The film, directed by sports documentarians Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn, is a convincing testament to why Pelé is still so highly regarded. Much of the film consists of archival footage of his public appearances and accomplishments on the pitch, and it’s quite thrilling to witness. As Pelé pulls off miraculous goals, expert passing, and lightning speed, it’s easy to be enthralled by the sheer talent and genius of his game. After spending a brief bit of time on Pelé’s upbringing, the film harnesses in on the period between 1958 and 1970, when the athlete was at his height in Brazil. It focuses primarily on the four World Cup tournaments he played in, leaving little time for his efforts in the Brazilian football league system.
However, the documentary is only partially about Pelé as the player. Pelé’s prime, particularly the period beginning in the mid-1960s, coincided with a dark period in Brazil’s history. The film touches on how a coup (backed by the United States, of course) dismantled the government in 1964, leading to a dictatorial military state. Alongside portrayals of Pelé’s magic on the field, the film also features footage portraying the events that resulted from the government overthrow.
This is where the film often fails to go beyond a cursory exploration of this turbulent time for the country, as well as Pelé’s role as a national hero at the time. Whereas the film could have provided a deeply informative and enlightening analysis of this point in history and the relationship between national sport and politics, it treads lightly on the most controversial areas. In addition to the images, Nicholas and Tryhorn employ interviews with former players, friends, journalists, and the 80-year-old icon himself to tell the story. Those with Pelé himself represent an area where the film could have pushed for a more in-depth examination of the man and his place in the chaos of the time.
For example, the film briefly raises the topic of Pelé’s association with dictator Emílio Garrastazu Médici, his possible knowledge of the government’s use of torture, and his silence on the violent and racist actions of the government. This is brought up through a few passing comments from interviewees, but it’s quickly bypassed by the repeated notion that Pelé’s success and brilliance provided a sense of escapism for citizens of the country during the turbulent time. While this is certainly true and worth noting, it indicates a practice of the film to shy away from criticism of the icon and his place in history.
This is not a case of wanting the film to be something other than it is. These are topics and areas that the film seeks to uncover, yet never really takes beyond the surface level. This issue with the film is not only reserved for the areas of critique towards Pelé either. It would have been nice to go further into his aspirations, how his relationship with his father helped form those, and simply what he was like when he wasn’t playing football. In fact, one of the best scenes in the film is when Pelé joins his former teammates just to hang out and give each other hell as if no time has passed at all.
Once you get past the film’s refusal to dive into some of the pertinent areas the way it probably should, it is still a pleasurable experience as a gateway into learning more about Pelé and Brazil. Frankly, his story is pretty neat, and it’s nice to see it brought to the screen in a confidently made documentary. So although there are problems persisting throughout the film, it’s never a poor viewing experience. The film succeeds in displaying just how much he meant (and still means) to the country as a symbol of progress and success.
This is accented during a few scenes in which Pelé breaks down while explaining the feeling of playing in the World Cup. Even if we’re not always fully tuned in to what is behind the tears, the editing blends these interviews with the archival footage to craft a coherent and captivating narrative. Altogether, the film may please sports fans like myself, who truly had a good time with the film despite its flaws, and did learn a thing or two. For those who want a more pointed exploration of the sociocultural context surrounding Pelé and Brazil, or will research the story after viewing, it’s likely to be unsatisfying to a degree.