I had the opportunity to watch LEVYFilm's American Football last night. Released a few months ago, the documentary had several sold-out screenings at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle, but unfortunately I was on the other coast and couldn't make it to any of them. Thankfully, the film was released on Blu-Ray and I was finally able to see the film I was so excited about for so long. The documentary, a behind-the-scenes look at the Seattle Sounders FC soccer team for roughly a season, had reached an almost mythical status in my imagination. Director Scott Levy had been sharing various clips and teasers on his website for months leading up to its eventual release. His camera work, his choice of musical score, his vision for the passion of the game and the characters that emerge from it, all of it excited me. And for more than just the obvious reason -- though I like to identify as a relatively passionate Sounders fan, I'm equally a fan of American soccer on the whole, and the growth of the sport in this country over the last few years. It seemed like he was trying to tell a story that was greater than just this team, and that was promising.
This is why American Football held such mystique for me. Even the title seemed perfect: a bit of a play on words, showcasing the reality of soccer in America at this point in time. Teasers included a clip from Sounders defender Zach Scott, a player who's been with the team for a decade yet still only makes $50,000 a year. "My wife's been huge, because I'm sure not supporting my family with my salary" (I paraphrase). I was thrilled that this fascinating detail of American professional sports was going to be expanded upon in a documentary about my favorite sports team. Yet ultimately, when the two-and-a-half hour film played out, it had an identity crisis in the story that it was trying to tell.
To be fair, there were a lot of stories to be told, and given the type of film that Levy wanted to produce, maybe he did the best he could. He had incredibly close access to the team, often filming in the locker room and practice facilities to get clips of team interactions and impassioned speeches from coach Sigi Schmid. The film opens with the crushing defeat of the Sounders' 2011 playoff loss against Real Salt Lake, and goes on to show various game clips of the 2012 season leading up to the conference final against the LA Galaxy.
It could have been a pretty good sports season documentary, but it doesn't tell enough of a narrative of the team's preparation and struggles to perform well during the season and make the playoffs. Scattered regular season games are shown, but there's no illuminated narrative of "We need to win this game to clinch a playoff berth". To the viewer, it almost seems like a given that the team will return to the playoffs as they did in 2011 and have a second shot at making things right.
So the film isn't really about a soccer team's push to make it to the playoffs. It is, however, speckled with interesting interviews from various Sounders players, as well as some of the coaching staff. We get to hear about upbringing, childhood experiences and struggles, and what brought many of the characters into the professional soccer world. They're all valid interviews, but many are punctuated by the abrupt culminating question, "Do you tell your parents you love them?" It's meant to be a thematic question that cuts to the heart of players and demonstrates something about their relationships, but the theme is never expanded upon in a significant way. It's seen pretty clearly that while every player loves his parents, some express it more directly than others. This is valid, but there's never any follow-up that makes the information worthwhile. We don't see how these different players perform differently on the pitch, for example.
The theme I was most excited to see, the concept of "American football" being a sport that's still on the rise, populated mostly by players making middling wages, is something that just wasn't expanded upon enough. Besides Zach Scott, many of the players interviewed are making higher wages, and few interview questions press about money, motivation, and what it's like to play in the States. And it's fine that this isn't the focus of the documentary, but I just wish something else had emerged as the major theme. The pacing of the movie also didn't help. It steadily introduced interviewees two at a time throughout the film, and did little to drum up anticipation for the LA Galaxy playoff matches.
Of course, I can only applaud what Scott Levy has done here. He and his small team have assembled a love letter to Sounders fans: a beautifully filmed extended meditation on the team, its players, its dynamics, and the never-ending pursuit of excellence. The camera work was gorgeous and varied, and the instrumental score worked well to bolster the modern vibe of the cinematic style. Even with its long runtime, the film was enjoyable to watch throughout and reminded me why I was a fan of the sport in the first place.
Ultimately, American Football is a film that most Sounders fans will enjoy immensely, but it just isn't a film about American football. It's a film about a team and its players. There's emotion here, but there isn't a single narrative that rises above the rest. Fans of MLS may do well to watch it, but their patience might be tested by its decadent runtime. And I'm still waiting for something, anything, whether it's a documentary, a memoir or something else, that tells the story of professional sports players making as little as $35,000 a year. To me, that's a fascinating and seemingly unknown story that needs to be told.