Category: Sport on Film

Death of a Gentleman (UK 2015)

A scene from a 'proper' game of cricket – an image from the film's website:

A scene from a ‘proper’ game of cricket – an image from the film’s website:

This documentary is about corruption in the governing bodies that control international cricket. It was released in July – ironically in the middle of one of the most exciting of recent test series between England and Australia. Ostensibly setting out to discover if test cricket was dying in the face of commercial exploitation of shorter forms of the game, the filmmakers discovered a bigger story about corruption along the way.

The film’s release prompted several newspaper articles that explored the content of the film’s argument, three on the Guardian‘s website alone. Rather than repeat these, I intend to focus more on the film as an example of documentary. I should say first that I found the film fascinating and I learned a great deal. Having said that, I have some doubts about its status as a cinema documentary.

My first quibble is with the title. The suggestion is clear – cricket is a game meant to be played in a ‘gentlemanly’ manner. The implication is that this means that test cricket played in the correct manner is what cricket is all about. To emphasise this the film begins with a long shot of a rural cricket ground with a team in whites slowly taking to the field. BBC Test Match Special commentator Jonathan Agnew and West Indian legend Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’ and my hero) are wheeled out to explain this to camera. The film’s website even tells us that: “Death of a Gentleman is not a nostalgic look back at a sport that professionals played against amateurs while stopping for tea”. Fair enough, but the two main filmmakers don’t really see cricket in the way that I and many others do. Sam Collins is an Old Etonian and Jarrod Kimber describes himself as a “larrikin Aussie”. I’ve been watching/listening to cricket commentaries for a very long time and I know cricket is a game riven by conflicts between patrician public school boys (aka ‘gentlemen’), wealthy entrepreneurs and professional players and that for much of its history it has been cursed with colonial mentalities and the whiff of racist assumptions. The film rather glides over this and focuses on the dispute between the first two – between the public school ethos and the power of money. To be fair, however, the journalist Gideon Haigh’s contributions do slightly shift the argument.

As a film, I guess this is an ‘authored’ and therefore ‘performative’ documentary in the guise of investigative reporting. The two filmmakers are the central characters who travel between Australia, the UK, India, Sri Lanka and the UAE first looking for an answer to their question about test cricket and then investigating the murky goings-on of the International Cricket Council. As a ‘cinematic’ documentary there is not much to commend. The travels of our reporters are presented conventionally, intercut with talking heads of famous cricketers and administrators and archive footage of news reports and cricket coverage. Visually the film comes alive only when we get to India and the pair are suitably overawed by their experience of an IPL (Indian Premier League – 20:20) game. There wasn’t enough of this but I’m probably arguing for a different film that tries to understand cricket and its social history.

For film and media theorists/analysts what is most interesting about this film is that the filmmakers, perhaps accidentally, present us with a kind of perfect hero and two ‘over the top’ villains. I suspect a Hollywood scriptwriter might have struggled to invent these three. The ‘hero’ is Ed Cowan, a very personable young Australian who plays cricket in the ‘proper’ way and is consequently dropped by the Australian Cricket Authority because he doesn’t score fast enough for the one-day game. He is there at the beginning of the film to provide the story that illustrates why ‘faster’ versions of the game (20:20 and ODI) are damaging test cricket. He is soon overshadowed by the two super-villains – Giles Clarke, Chair of the (ECB) English Cricket Board and N Srinivasan President of the BCCI (Board of the Cricket Council of India) and later Chair of the ICC (International Cricket Council). I’m not going to go into the arguments presented in the film about how these two led international cricket down the ‘wrong road’ and in N. Srinivasan’s case became mired in corruption scandals. I’m more interested in how the institutional conventions of journalism and documentary practice ‘overdetermine’ the way in which the heroes and villains are represented, almost unconsciously. Collins and Kimber are shown arranging interviews with Clarke and Srinivasan. The two administrators, perhaps surprisingly, give interviews on camera and then act like politicians – spinning responses, refusing to answer certain questions etc. In the case of Srinivasan I’m not sure about how this has been edited but it gives the impression that Srinivasan is being deliberately evasive. He comes across, as the journalists say, as ‘inscrutable’. Clarke on the other hand doesn’t seem to care about being the bad guy. Some of the things he says are in themselves defensible – even if many would disagree with him – but he says them with such little grace and barely concealed contempt that some of the overall argument is lost. When a villain is so villainous in a documentary it does make you wonder if the whole thing is a set-up. Later Clarke will avoid the young men, calling them ‘idiots’.

The final confrontation – when Collins and Kimber travel to Dubai to try to discover what the International Cricket Council have got up to – is firmly within the ‘performative mode’. They themselves comment on this by introducing their ‘fake sheikh’ (a ruse often used to expose sporting scandals in the UK, where a reporter disguised as an Arab sheikh wears a microphone and camera beneath his robes to trap the bad guys. What is shocking is that despite the exposure of these senior administrators, nothing has really changed in world cricket, except that these two have kept their powerful roles with slightly different titles. Collins and Kimber have started a Campaign to Change Cricket with a public demonstration at the Oval Test on August 20th, a petition and more with details available on the website. The change is needed to stop the domination of world cricket by the representatives of India, England and Australia who have effectively marginalised the other seven Test Match countries and the larger group of associate members who need support to develop cricket in their countries. The three big players have the TV markets sewn up and they don’t want to share the spoils. As one of the interviewees points out, the real question is whether test cricket needs money to survive and grow or whether test cricket exists to make money for the interests who control it.

This film isn’t great cinema but it is a useful exposure of what is happening at the top of international cricket that raises important questions for all cricket lovers. You can still see it in selected cinemas (a list on the website) and once it is available on DVD it must surely be seen in every cricket clubhouse.

Foxcatcher (US 2014)


I checked the posts and we have not reviewed this film, though we have posted on some of the other Academy Award Nominees. This is one of the better films in that selection. Certainly better than Birdman, which won the Best Picture and Best Director Awards. Selma is also a better film and is better directed than the 2014 winner. A word of caution regarding Foxcatcher‘s marketing. I saw the UK trailer and thought ‘this is not my sort of movie’. However, a couple of regulars at my favourite cinema commended it. So I went and saw it: I am glad I followed their advice; the trailer is misleading.

The film explores the relationship between two brothers, Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing |Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and John Eleuthère DuPont (Steve Carell), a member of the multi-million dollar entrepreneurial family. John wants to ‘coach’ a team of wrestlers for the US team for the 1988 Olympics. Mark and Dave have already won Olympic Gold Medals and are to be his stars. The film includes quite an amount of training for and participation in wrestling, including the 1998 Olympics in Seoul. However, the film is really about their relationships and about class in recent US society: not a focus that is that common in mainstream Hollywood films.

The film enters this world in a slightly tangential fashion: it took me about 25 minutes to get really interested in the film. But then it gets into the complexities of the US psyche, especially in terms of class and masculinity. It is not the usual ‘hard work pays off with sporting success’ common in sports films. But it does explore the motivation of participants and their backers in the in increasingly commercial worlds of international sport.

The acting by the central protagonists is convincing. Mark is for much of the film out his depth in the world of lauded over by the super-rich. Dave fails to see what is developing beneath the surface. Whilst John increasingly reveals the distorted personality that such an incestuously rich family can spawn. Steve Carell won the Best Supporting Actor Award from the Academy for his performance. And there is an extremely effective cameo by Vanessa Redgrave as his overpowering mother.

The film is ably directed by Bennett Millar, also Capote (2005). The cinematography by Grieg Fraser makes excellent use of the interiors, often containing the characters, and the landscapes provide ironically beautiful settings for this privileged world. As in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Fraser’s use of colour emphasises the unspoken aspects of the relationships: shadows portend the darker stages of the film. Note though it was shot on celluloid but circulates in a 2K DCP: unfortunately some of the long shots lack definition. The sound track is excellent, with a fine balance between dialogue, noise and music: quite few of the recent films, including Birdman, seem to have a lack of balance between these inputs.

The film is based on actual people and events. I had a vague memory of these from the 1980s, but so little that the film was full of surprises as the story developed. I think it works better this way. Both as an increasingly riveting study and as a critical view of ‘America’, this film is to be recommended.

Goon (Canada 2011)

Seann William Scott as the bloodied enforcer on the bench (from

Seann William Scott as the bloodied enforcer on the bench (from

Goon is billed as a ‘sports comedy’. It can also be more narrowly defined as a comedy about ‘minor league’ sport and it’s related to the sports biopic since the story is loosely based on the brief career of Doug Smith who wrote a book about his time as an ‘enforcer’ in minor league ice hockey from 1988 through to the late 1990s. The film could also be described as a ‘comedy-drama’. An ‘enforcer’ is a semi-official ‘fighter’ in an ice-hockey team whose job is to protect the team’s star player and also to intimidate the other team. Because ice hockey has always been a very physical game, governing bodies have tolerated a certain amount of violence on the ice. Some spectators are also keen to support enforcers. This violence is obviously attractive to filmmakers as it enables various conventional storylines and provides narrative devices to pep up genre narratives. The best-known ice hockey comedy focusing on violent play as a deliberate tactic is probably Slapshot (US 1977) in which Paul Newman is directed by George Roy Hill.

I missed Goon on release in January 2012 in the UK and I’m glad I caught most of it on Film4 last night. I found the film interesting for several reasons. First, I always find Canadian genre pictures have a different flavour to them even when, like Goon, they involve Hollywood stars. Second, the milieu of the minor or ‘semi-pro’ leagues takes the narrative into small-town locations with a more authentic working-class feel. Goon is a slight disappointment in this regard since, presumably for financial support reasons, most of the film was made in Manitoba around Winnipeg when the action in the story is supposed to be located in Eastern Canada. The enforcer’s team is the fictitious Halifax Highlanders. Even so, it is interesting to see a film that purports to be featuring St. Johns Newfoundland at one point.

The central character, the ‘goon’ is played by the American Pie actor Seann William Scott and the ‘villain’ – Ross Rhea, the legendary enforcer in the league – is played by Liev Schreiber. Writers Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg have developed the character based on Doug Smith so that he was adopted by a Jewish family (the father played by Eugene Levy, another actor internationally famous because of American Pie). Doug feels ‘stupid’ because his father and his brother are doctors and he works as a bouncer. An incident when he is watching a hockey game leads him to try out as an enforcer and he becomes successful. The narrative then leads him towards a showdown with the Schreiber character, while a sub-plot covers his relationship with the man he is there to protect, a former ace player who despises Doug because he is not a skater or a good hockey player. The ‘comedy’ in a film that is more bloody than funny is partly derived from the romcom strand. I thought this worked quite well. Doug off the ice is rather sweet and quite stoical in his attempts to woo Eva (Alison Pill). This trope, i.e. the sweet guy outside the sporting arena, is familiar from boxing pictures but it works here as well. I should point out that as well as the violence, the language is also very harsh – this may be why so many sports fans like the film.

Directed by Michael Dowse (whose CV includes directing the UK comedy It’s All Gone Pete Tong in 2004) the film seems to have earned most of its $6 million+ box office in Canada and the UK with just a limited US release.  North American sports pictures generally don’t do as well at the international box office as they do domestically. Ice hockey is popular in Northern Europe (Sweden especially) and Russia and the film does seem to have reached these territories, though perhaps only on DVD. I read that the violence tolerated in the US/Canada is not acceptable in European leagues so I’m intrigued as to what they made of the sport-based content. The rest of the narrative is universal in appeal and I think that clearly Canadian content probably helps sell the film in small towns in other countries – the IMDB message board for the film has a lively discussion of the Canadian accents in the film (which to my inexpert ear didn’t seem as pronounced as in some other Canadian films). As a Brit I find ice hockey to be the most accessible North American sport possibly because of its important role in Canadian culture. I’m still grinning at the sight of large posters depicting the Queen in the various arenas in the film. I’ve never seen that at a UK venue (but perhaps others have?).

Canadian trailer:

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Australia 2012)

Alexander England as the English cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Alexander England as the England cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Howzat! is an Australian television mini-series (2×90 mins) first broadcast in Australia in 2012 and now being shown in the UK on BBC4 to coincide with the start of the latest Ashes Cricket Series. I confess to not having had particularly high hopes at the outset, but I found the story to be compelling, even though I knew the outcome. The series deals with the challenge to ‘World Cricket’ in 1977 posed by the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, owner of the commercial Nine Network in Sydney. Before Murdoch, Packer was the businessman prepared to take on the cricket establishment in Australia and ultimately in London where the International Cricket Conference had its HQ. Recognising that the most famous cricket players were very poorly paid, Packer realised that he could lure them into contracts to play cricket for his cameras (he had been refused exclusive TV rights to international cricket played in Australia, despite offering far more money than the state broadcaster). When he secretly signed 35 leading players, the cricket authorities fought back and for two years Packer’s ‘World Series’ existed alongside a weakened official programme of official international cricket. The ICC eventually regained control of the players, but Packer got his exclusive contract and cricket was never the same again. Packer has since been credited with many of the innovations that characterise modern cricket (day/night cricket, the white ball and coloured clothing etc.).

My description of the conflict might not sound too enticing if you aren’t a cricket fan but as a drama this mini-series has several advantages. Firstly it has the eternal battle between Aussie and Pom – the brash Australian and the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Social class is also part of this with the cricketing authorities located in Lords cricket ground  in London and Packer and the players generally around the pool and the barbie. In reality, however, Packer isn’t as uncouth as he acts. He came from a wealthy family and his father had edited the newspapers within the media empire. There is a nice moment in the script when Packer demonstrates that he knows exactly what ‘fancy phrases’ mean and part of the pleasure of the film is watching the stuffed-shirts (the ‘old farts’ as the similar Rugby Unions officials were memorably termed) under-estimate Kerry Packer. The film is partly a biopic and we learn that Packer’s interest in cricket is very much linked to his memories of his father. But it is also a boardroom thriller (Packer spent rather more money on his challenge than the company could really afford) as well as a historical film about sport. Having said that, there wasn’t much actual cricket in the first episode and what intrigues most is the politics of the game.

Howzat! has a conventional narrative structure and visual style. The script by Christopher Lee and the central performances by Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer and Abe Forsythe as John Cornell are very good and lift the film above routine drama. Packer is a larger than life character, rich and boorish but with a keen eye for a business opportunity. He is a universal figure whereas Cornell is defined solely in Australian terms. It seems an indicator of the production’s intentions to appeal only to a local audience that the Cornell character is never properly explained. He is the one who, as fast bowler Dennis Lillee’s agent, takes the original idea for World Series cricket to Packer. Cornell is young and attractive with a beautiful young wife – but the narrative does not also explain (until the final credits) that he is also the comic foil for Paul Hogan the comedy superstar of Australian TV and with Hogan he produced the hit film Crocodile Dundee in 1986.

The series was made by Southern Star Productions (now part of Endemol) with support from Packer’s own Nine Network. It might be seen as a vanity project except that Packer himself died aged only 68 in 2005. The politics of the series are interesting in their attempt to present Packer as the driven man, haunted by his father’s preference for Kerry’s brother Clyde. Packer in this film narrative has no home life or seemingly much interest in women – the script instead offers a typical mix of bullying cruelty laced with sentimentalism in Packer’s working relationship with his secretary Rosie and the suggestion that Packer opened the hallowed Members’ Pavilion of the Sydney Cricket Ground to women in 1978 (a significant move in the antediluvian world of cricketing behaviour). This ‘personal story’ obviously precludes any real discussion of the overall questions about the power of the media moguls in Australia on other media organisations and indeed on other sports organisations. It tends to focus on the central battle in which Packer is clearly a force for change.

PackerDVDThe second episode includes more cricketing footage and more focus on the players. I suspect much of the script is fairly bland in its attempt to represent the players and their camaraderie and personal rivalries. Some of the reviews of the series in the UK have joked about the players’ appearance (those 70s shaggy haircuts and facial hair, huge collars, browns and yellows etc.) I actually thought the actors looked the parts pretty well. A personal observation is that, at the time, Tony Greig was probably my least favourite sporting character – a white South African as England captain during the apartheid era – but in this series and in the glowing tributes from former players that followed his death in 2012, he comes over as a much more attractive figure.

I think there are other Australian mini-series like this, including one about the battles between Packer and Murdoch that I’d like to see coming to UK television. In the meantime, Howzat! is still available on the BBC iPlayer and a DVD is released in the UK on July 22. If you have any interest in cricket this is a ‘must watch’ and there is plenty for the non-sports fan as well.