' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: 16 Days of Glory (1985)

Friday, August 28, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: 16 Days of Glory (1985)

The victory by American Edwin Moses in the 400 meter hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics was not necessarily thrilling. He was in the midst of winning 122 races in a row and won easily. Director Bud Greenspan, then, does not focus on Moses so much in recounting this race for “16 Days of Glory”, his official L.A. Olympic documentary, as Moses’s then-wife, Myrella Bordt, sitting in the stands, all out of sorts, like a parent watching their child. She weeps with relief at the end while Edwin just smiles an easy grin, like the race was never really in doubt. We begin here because this episode exemplifies Greenspan’s ability to hone in and find drama even when, on the surface, there would seem to be none, focusing on the human interest of the story rather than merely the feat of strength. He’s like Roone Arledge in that way, the former ABC producer who essentially created the televised American Olympics as we know them, concentrating as much on prepackaged stories on the athletes as of athletic events. And so if other notable Olympic documentarians, like Claude LeLouch and Kon Ichikawa, employed the medium and their own specific aesthetic to visually and wordlessly capture the athlete’s humanity, Greenspan is more akin to a sports journalist, cutting back and forth between talking head interviews and the events, letting the athletes and narration tell us as much about what’s happening as the images.

“16 Days of Glory” opens, as these Olympics accounts tend to, with the opening ceremonies, conspicuously absent 14 Eastern Bloc allies led by the Soviet Union. Greenspan’s narrator, David Perry, does at least mention nonappearance of these nations even if he forgoes the exact reasons, the tit for tat boycott after the United States led a 65-nation cold shoulder at the preceding Summer Games held in Moscow. That sort of controversy and nationalism, Greenspan went on the record as saying, never interested him where the Olympics were concerned, even if they were an incontrovertible part. And so in his telling the parade of nations is a party the Soviets lamely chose not to attend. It left me wondering if an official Greenspan documentary about the 1980 all-Iron Curtain Summer Olympics might have yielded unintentional Soviet agitprop.

Though “16 Days of Glory” is not literally a comprehensive account of the 1984 Summer Games, gees, it sure feels like one given its colossal four hour and forty-four minute run time. Even stretched out over a couple days, as it was with this reviewer, and essentially broken down into individual chapters rather than functioning as one true unbroken piece, by the time Placido Domingo uncorks a solo at the end, it feels less like an epilogue than overkill. And Domingo feels less true to the spirit of Greenspan’s film anyway than the synthesizer strain of Lee Holdridge’s score suggesting Tangerine Dream reimagining the “Independence Day” theme, or something. That part of the score, in fact, contrasts not just with Perry but with the dazzling peristyle arches and columns of the L.A. Coliseum, making the athletes on the track and in the field, where the movie spends much of its time, look like dazzling competitors beamed back from the future, more cutting edge in their superlative competition than the dude with the jetpack during the Opening Ceremonies

If the constant presence of American athletes might have imbued “16 Days of Glory” with an overwhelming sense of American jingoism fashionable to the era, Greenspan mostly elides this potential problem through Perry’s dry, just-the-facts narration. It’s like if John Facenda, the original Voice of God, was reading a VCR instruction manual, like if NFL Films had been filtered through an episode of NOVA. Some of his lines might be rife with fanfare but he manages to filter most of the fanfare out. It has a strange effect, downplaying the myriad sob stories that Greenspan tells, yes, but simultaneously distancing us from these bursts of incomprehensible athletic brilliance. Not for nothing are the most indelible moments Greenspan lays out the story in visuals, like before Mary Lou Retton’s famous Gold Medal-sealing vault, a single cut to Retton’s foremost competitor, Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo, evoking how gymnastics reduces you to a spectator in your own event while Perry’s voice drops out entirely just before Retton’s final sprint down the vault runway and lets the athlete carry us away.

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