Give me Samoa: goalkeeper Nicky Salapu in Next Goal Wins
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Next Goal Wins: for once, a football film people might actually watch

And celebrating the unlikely kinship of Alan Bennett and Philip Roth. 

For retail corporations, the football World Cup is a quadrennial opportunity to flog tie-in products: branded drinks, breakfast cereals, video games. The movie business would love to have a slice of the action and at least one film about the sport is usually released ahead of the tournament. For Brazil 2014, it’s Next Goal Wins, a documentary by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison that follows the attempts of American Samoa, the team that suffered the record 31-0 defeat against Australia in 2001, to qualify for this year’s contest.

In football movies, though, one kind of defeat is almost always guaranteed. Goal! – a trilogy about a fictional player that was released either side of the 2006 World Cup – was so unsuccessful that it had been relegated to a DVD-only release by the third instalment. The main reason that this sport has struggled to spawn cinematic classics is that the potential market is fragmented and partisan. While most of the globe can identify with James Bond or Buzz Lightyear, a majority of women – and of Americans – remain indifferent to men kicking balls. A further difficulty: even after months in the gym, an Equity member won’t look plausibly like a football star. Michael Sheen is tremendous as Brian Clough in The Damned United (2009) but the actors playing the manager’s Leeds United players look as if they’d struggle to beat a bunch of nuns.

Sidestepping these problems, Next Goal Wins is, for me, one of the best films about football. It’s a documentary – any playing we see is real – and as American Samoa have practically never won a game, every­one will root for them. Because they are also fielding football’s first transgender international player and have a coach who has taken the job for sombre personal reasons, it will be easy to persuade people with no interest in the game that the film goes beyond football.

Indeed, the key to success in this field may be to include as little match-play as possible. Among my front-three favourite football films is the 1939 curiosity The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (available in a digitally restored print on DVD). A player is murdered on the pitch during a charity fixture and although the football is authentic – filmed, poignantly, at the final game played by the 1938 Arsenal team before the Second World War – the director Thorold Dickinson is, in essence, making a detective film, with the stadium and changing rooms serving as classic locked rooms.

In the back of one shot, there’s a newspaper poster announcing Hitler’s ambitions. His enactment of those ambitions forms the background to the movie generally considered to wear the number-one jersey among football films: John Huston’s Escape to Victory (1981), in which Michael Caine captains an Allied prisoner-of-war team, including some incarcerated professionals, against the Germans in a grudge match.

Three key British 20th-century events are combined in that traditional German-baiting chant: “Two world wars and one World Cup!” Escape to Victory is both a fine football film and a great war movie, which does not cheapen historical reality: Caine puts some concentration camp inmates in his squad in the hope of saving them from the gas chambers. However, Huston’s solution to the problem of convincing action – casting real footballers including Brazil’s Pelé and England’s Bobby Moore as POWs – proves problematic. Michael Caine, playing a man who once played for West Ham and England, doesn’t remotely look as if he could have done, while Moore, who actually did represent those teams, is too far into retirement to come across like a plausible footballer.

Generally, football plays better on grass than on screen and the trick is to keep the characters off the pitch if possible. ITV’s Footballers’ Wives (2002-2006) was a hit because it sensibly included more wiving than footballing and Paul Weiland’s charming film Sixty Six (2006), in which a young boy’s bar mitzvah coincides with the England v West Germany final, is more domestic than sporting. The two best films about women footballers – Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and She’s the Man (2006) – also use the game to tackle the bigger issue of discrimination. Next Goal Wins, though, does the double by being interesting to football fans but not exclusively so.

Identical twins

Alan Bennett’s recent nomination, in an 80th-birthday TV interview, of Philip Roth as a favourite writer caused some surprise. But I have long been struck by an affinity between the writers, which was confirmed by Roth’s own recent octogenarian tribute show on BBC1. Each has repeatedly used his birthplace – Leeds and Newark – as a source of inspiration. Roth has written three novels featuring characters called “Philip Roth”, including two of them in Operation Shylock; Bennett’s trio of plays with “Alan Bennett” in the cast list includes a pair of them in The Lady in the Van.

Both have written works in which the central character is, in essence, a penis: Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Bennett’s Kafka’s Dick. And Kafka, a Bennett obsession, also haunts Roth’s The Prague Orgy. Roth has been a gag in The Simpsons, Bennett in Family Guy. So, apparently unlikely literary twins prove to be nearly identical.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Dunkirk is an accomplished, expressive war film without the blood and guts

Christopher Nolan both stretches time and compresses it, creating suspense without horror.

The first line heard in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk is a declaration of identity. “English! Anglais!” shouts the inky-haired, milky-faced Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he hurries toward a group of French soldiers at the end of a deserted street, having narrowly escaped being gunned down by Germans. Identity is crucial in this movie. Questions arise about the nationality of a grunt who appears to have fallen mute: is he a German spy? And with several hundred thousand soldiers cornered in Dunkirk awaiting evacuation in May 1940, foreigners are weeded out of the lines of men waiting for rescue by British vessels.

Only one naval ship has been committed to the evacuation: with German bombers dotting the sky, picking off the troops waiting on the beach and jetty (or mole), the military won’t risk putting in jeopardy any vessels that may be needed come the next big battle. In the absence of other options, an improvised flotilla of civilian boats makes its bobbing way across the Channel towards Dunkirk.

That cry of “English! Anglais!” could also signal a returning home for the British-born, Anglo-American Nolan. For 20 years, he has been almost exclusively a Hollywood filmmaker, darkening the mood at multiplexes with his sombre Dark Knight series and his riddle-me-this puzzle pictures Inception and Interstellar, and becoming in the process one of the world’s genuine superstar directors. Dunkirk brings him back to his roots while continuing to pose the sort of structural challenges that have animated him since Memento (still his most wickedly inventive work) and The Prestige (a close second).

To maintain a triple-pronged narrative that cuts between soldiers such as Tommy on the beach, plucky civilian volunteers such as Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) inching across the waves toward France, and the RAF Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) babysitting the lot of them from the air, Nolan’s screenplay fuses the three timelines. This gives the impression that everything is happening concurrently, when, in fact, there are minuscule flashbacks, flash-forwards and replays of the action from different angles sewn into the editing. The events on the mole occupy around a week, the ones at sea a day, while the darting aerial combat lasts merely an hour. Providing momentum and continuity is Hans Zimmer’s surging score, which is shot through with mechanical groans and shrill, sawing violins redolent of exposed nerves.

Cinema has been stretching time since at least Battleship Potemkin but it is unusual to find elongation and compression used simultaneously. The soldiers’ long wait to be rescued, as they take cover in one ship that gets torpedoed and another that is beached, is necessarily abridged. The pilots’ mission, on the other hand, is stretched out and rendered in intricate detail; at one point, Farrier’s survival comes to depend on nothing more than a piece of chalk.

It’s a sly joke for Nolan to confine an actor as imposing as Tom Hardy to a cramped cockpit as well as hiding his pretty face with a disfiguring mask for the second time. (His unintelligible turn in The Dark Knight Rises caused viewers everywhere to cup their ears in a collective “Eh?”) Casting elsewhere works on the Thin Red Line principle that minor characters are more easily defined when played by stars: Kenneth Branagh is a naval commander, Cillian Murphy a shell-shocked soldier. Advance publicity has dwelt on the acting debut of Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, who is the latest British pop star cast by the director following Tim Booth in Batman Begins and David Bowie in The Prestige. Styles does a decent job and doesn’t bump into the furniture, though there are other elements in the film more worthy of note.

Chief among them is the decision to create suspense without horror, substantiating Nolan’s claim that this is not so much a war movie as a survival film. Audiences are put on high alert by an ambush in the opening scene and by the shot of a dead man’s foot sticking out of the sand. A soldier asked how he knows that the tide is coming in responds by pointing out that bodies are washing up on the shore. Yet Nolan is manifestly not playing a game of oneupmanship against Saving Private Ryan. Hints of violence are sparing. Soldiers killed by bombs simply disappear in an explosion of earth, and the one death in which our empathy is actively solicited falls loosely and ignominiously into the category of friendly fire.

For all its accomplished action sequences and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s expressive cinematography, which mimics at times the distressed texture of Super 8, the picture is distinguished by a knack for undercutting genre conventions without diminishing them emotionally. Pretty much the only red stuff shown is the strawberry jam handed out on slices of bread aboard a hospital ship; the one time we hear the words of Churchill they are read aloud from the morning paper by an exhausted soldier understandably lacking in bombast or ceremony. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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