16 Days of Glory

August 6, 2012

One of the surprises among the Oscar nominations was the absence of 16 Days of Glory in the best documentary feature category.

Even among those who hadn’t seen it, the film sounded like a natural choice; after all, the documentary category is usually filled with moves few people have heard of and fewer have seen. 16 Days, on the other hand, was the official record of the ultra-ballyhooed 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Surely that gave it shoo-in status?

Well, ask Cher and Steven Spielberg about shoo-in status. 16 Days of Glory didn’t make it, and now that the film is going into wide release, it’s more obvious why. Competent, well-photographed, and shrewdly constructed, 16 Days is nevertheless a perfectly ordinary sports documentary, no better or worse than the average Super Bowl highlights film.

The segments, focusing on individual performers, are only as beguiling as the particular subjects. There are some interesting omissions: Carl Lewis, for example, and the fall of Mary Decker.

The opening scenes are rather good—the stadium erupting in a mosaic of flags, created by the cards held by spectators, and the torch passing from Jesse Owens’ granddaughter to gold medalist Rafer Johnson, who slaps the steep stairs in front of him as he hikes the last leg to the top.

The first segment is a twist: Dave Moorcroft, British world-record holder in the 5,000 meters, suffers from a chronic pelvic injury that strikes him on the day of the final heat. He gamefully finishes the race, however, in pain and lagging far behind the leaders.

The next segment is a heart-tugger. The Japanese Judo master Yamashita is injured during a semi-final match, and visibly limps from the bout. He can’t rest, however, because all the matches take place on the same day. So we see him dragging his bad leg behind him and, somehow, keeping opponents away from it, until he achieves a stirring victory.

The triumphs are real, and a tribute to the athletes. Producer-director-writer Bud Greenspan can’t resist the temptation to heighten each contest by emphasizing the odds against the athletes who will win.

It’s the oldest sports cliché in the world, of course, much beloved by columnists and broadcasters, and Greenspan is pretty brazen about exploiting it; athletes are portrayed as too old, too slow, or too unheralded to win, but they come through in the final reel.

Greenspan has been careful (except, perhaps, at the grand finale) not to turn the film into a bloody show of nationalism, which is no small feat considering what was done to the Olympics by politicians (of every stripe) eager to cash in on the flag-waving.

Greenspan makes no attempt to make the film into the kind of visual poetry of, for instance, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of the 1936 games. It’s sheer reportage, with only the occasional stray detail catching the marvelous poetry possible in athletic competition: the reluctance of Rowdy Gaines, expecting the worst, to turn around and look at the results after he has won a gold medal in swimming; the wife of hurdler Edwin Moses doing some hurdling of her own as she jumps onto the track to hug the winner; an unidentified American woman raising her hand to her mouth while on the awards platform, revealing fingernails of wild hue and length.

Two more cavils: not enough women (Joan Benoit and the inevitable Mary Lou Retton are the only women who have segments); and the narration, spoken by Daniel Perry, is exactly the kind of overblown hooey that’s been a sports staple for years. How many times do we need to hear, “The athletes entered the stadium like the gladiators of old,” before it can be retired?

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1986

The slights to Cher and Spielberg were for Mask and The Color Purple. The L.A. Olympics are remembered as Reagan-era patriot games, and indeed everything was wrapped in red, white and blue. You may not recognize some of these names, but most of them were very familiar at the time. Mary Lou Retton was, of course, the Gabby Douglas of those Games, but multiplied by the number of stars in the flag.