"Water polo," says American swimmer Mark Spitz, narrator of the 2006 documentary "Freedom's Fury", "is a punishing sport, combining violence and finesse, endurance and strategy." It is also, he goes on to note, a sport where so much takes place just out of sight, below the water's surface, where players kick, claw, scratch, and do God knows what else, all to get the upper hand. Those dueling notions, what is so obvious at first and what is not, are also at the heart of the Olympics, where sport takes center stage even as politics forever lurk just out of sight, and sometimes eclipse the original athletic-based intent. Never was that more apparent than in the game that director Colin Keith Gray's film chronicles - the semi-final water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne.
"Freedom's Fury" may start in the pool but it quickly moves on land, summarizing with reams of archival footage how during WWII the Nazi forces were driven out of Hungary by the Soviet Union, who subsequently, as one of the doc's myriad talking heads puts it, "forgot to leave." Instead the Soviets implemented their own government, politically and culturally repressing the Hungarians in the process. Athletics, as is explained, became one of the very few outlets Hungarians had, and there was no sport at which Hungary excelled more than water polo. How, exactly, a landlocked country like Hungary came to be a world power in a pool-set sport is only vaguely explained, disappointingly limited to the broadest of analysis and purple commentary like "It was in our blood." Still, it makes clear that Hungary achieved great success at the game because of forward-thinking training regimens and in-game strategy.
They were so good, in fact, that the Soviet Union, a place that, as David Maraniss noted in his book "Rome 1960", used "sports as propaganda to prove the superiority of the socialist system," sent its water polo team to Hungary to learn from the best and therefore exploit the best's which made the 1956 match something of a mentor vs. protégé affair, which all alone would have upped the dramatic stakes, except that abundant extra and real world drama too hold when, in the months just ahead of the Melbourne Olympics, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 erupted.
The entire documentary is building toward the clash in the pool, of course, a clash that Hungary won 4-0. The focus, however, is not so much on the specifics of how the game was won but the one image that made the game famous – that is, Hungary’s Ervin Zador, after being sucker punched by an opposing player, opening a gash in his eye that bled profusely and into the pool. This indelible black & white photo provided the game an eternal moniker – The Blood In The Water Match. It’s funny, though, because the Hungary players interviewed actually somewhat dismiss the violence of the moment, labeling it as the sort of thing the sport, in any circumstance, fuels, and that the media took the breathtaking photo and ran with what they perceived it symbolized. It’s an interesting moment, a documentary purporting to be about this event, essentially muting the meaning of the event.
Indeed, despite ostensibly being the doc’s crux, the match doesn’t feel as important as how the movie concludes, when we see the two teams re-united many years later, in the aftermath of the Iron Curtain coming down and Hungary gaining independence. This heartfelt meeting, however, also betrays the lack of a true Russian voice throughout the film. The closest we get is Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet premiere Nikita, whose smile as he speaks seems to betray almost a kind of embarrassment That the documentary is slanted toward Hungary is no surprise and not wrong, but the conciliatory conclusion would have been enhanced from honest voices on the other side, about what they felt back then and how they feel now. Their meeting does not seem to suggest that what’s past is past, but that there is still something valuable in discussing that past, looking it in the eye, and then moving forward. Seeing this conclusion taken in conjunction with all that came before reminded me of how the invaluable Louisa Thomas closed her piece in The New Yorker about the recent Wimbledon finale between American Serena Williams and German Angelique Kerber: "We sometimes project our problems onto sports. But sports can also be, in some small but real ways, where we start to work them out."