Film Review: Next Goal Wins

People rave about Next Goal Wins, some declare it the best footballing film ever made, other’s like Empire Magazine placing it in their best of 2014 “Movies You Probably Didn’t See” lists and so, I was really looking forward to it, really expecting a lot from a simple documentary about the American Samoa national football team as they attempt to banish the demons of the world’s heaviest defeat (31-0 against Australia in 2001) and regain pride during the 2014 Brazilian World Cup Qualifiers.

And I’m not exactly sure if those expectations were met? I think in part that is because even with everyone telling me it was great, I didn’t have that mental picture in my head of what great actually was. Certainly, it’s a good documentary, recounting an interesting story that most are probably unfamiliar with, aside maybe from derisive jokes at the size of the loss in 2001 but that was it. Nothing really blew me away.

American Samoa & Thomas Rongen - Next Goal Wins

I think this is partly down to the fact that the narration never really feels like it goes far enough. It was almost as if there wasn’t enough talking, enough description. The narration felt more given through moving image but without clarity. It’s reflective of the people and the culture but somehow, lacks the depth to really draw you in. It fails to really convey its identity. It always feels one step too far back, squinting at it’s subject.

This lack of understanding and identity married to the style of narration it uses meant I never really connected with anyone. I never felt I really got to know the players, how they really felt, what drive them on. There were large parts of the documentary where I almost felt that it was trying to be polite, fearing that the islanders’s have had enough ridicule and examination from the outside world, that it was conscious of upsetting anyone further. It didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feeling. And that’s a shame, because the story it tells deserves more. We deserve to know what makes the players tick. We need go further back into America Samoa’s history to understand the groundings in religion, pride and sacrifice that motivate the players. But we’re never given it.

The only time Next Goal Wins finds the power to really press home it’s gaze is when Thomas Rongen, the Dutch coach sub-contracted from the US Soccer Federation arrives to run the team. We get to meet him. To really look behind the eyes and see laid bare, how misconceived principles and ideas can be formed , and how simple interaction, heart and character changes, mellows and forms a new respect for the game, people and culture of this country that really highlights just how friendly and weak the rest of the documentary. It’s almost as if, because Rongen is an outside he was fair game from harder¬†scrutiny.

My Fair Lady - DVD Poster

Looking at the wider picture, Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, “Fake It Till You Make It”, all descriptions which could easily be placed upon this story. Because they only ever open the door to the reasons behind so much, never actually walking through it, I never felt really comfortable that I was getting the whole truth. I felt, there was an air of just passing, just being accepted was enough. The end goal wasn’t high, they don’t want to win the world cup, they don’t even want to beat Australia. It’s claimed they just want to improve, step by step, but even then, they don’t mind in what direction. And without the clarity around logic that losing 8-0 is better than 31-0, everything just blends into a mediocre acceptability that seems to suggest nothing matters if people are no longer looking, pointing and laughing.

Like I said, I really don’t know if I enjoyed it or not. There are times when it’s charming, fun and full of personality. There are others when it feels weak, limp and stuck together with blu-tack. There are even times when I laughed out loud. I can, hand on heart, say that as a “tourist video”, it’s made me really want to visit the country, meet the locals, so to speak, and from a football fan perspective, root for the country during any match they play. But it’s not a documentary I’ll probably bother with again, and I’m struggling to decide if it’s a documentary I’d lend to a friend.

6 out of 10 stars (6 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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