“Pelé,” Netflix’s latest foray into “30 for 30”-esque sports documentaries, chronicles the former Brazilian soccer player’s career from his first World Cup in 1958 to his last in 1970. With a mixture of strange, half-dubbed/half-subtitled talking-head interviews and old television footage, directors Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn (“Crossing the Line”) try to unpack the legacy of one of the most iconic figures in sports history. Unfortunately, the film never gets deep enough into the material to give the audience a more thorough understanding of Pelé’s story.
There are plenty of surface-level sports documentaries that are perfectly enjoyable to watch — like this past year’s “The Last Dance” — but the biggest problem with “Pelé” is that it could have a much bigger impact. While something like “The Last Dance” can just have fun with the personalities and dynamics of the players, “Pelé” feels like it is attempting to make a greater statement about something but never quite takes the risks necessary to get there.
For example, a large portion of the documentary is focused on the rise of the military dictatorship that ruled over Brazil from 1964 to 1985. However, because the dictatorship and Pelé never quite intersect, the film never gives the audience great insight into either. The documentary has a moment when it looks like it might criticize Pelé for not using his status and influence to speak out against the new oppressive regime — à la Muhammad Ali speaking out against the Vietnam War — but the film quickly brushes this aside in favor of continuing to paint him as a hero. It would be one thing if the film was always trying to keep Pelé’s mythic image intact — plenty of good sports documentaries do that — but the fact that the documentary brings up the criticism of Pelé means that it creates an opportunity for depth that it completely fails to capitalize on. It’s a disappointing choice by the filmmakers, especially when doing the opposite could have turned the film into something special.
Another example of the documentary’s failure is that it decides not to focus on the potential psychological effects of Pelé’s celebrity status. The film spends a few minutes talking about how Pelé’s worldwide fame forced him to travel a lot which put a strain on his family life, but these issues are never brought up again once the segment ends. From both old and new interviews, we can see in Pelé’s face the mental toll his life must be taking on him. But by spending so little time on it, the film passes up the opportunity to deconstruct the toxic nature of the celebrity lifestyle.
“Pelé” feels like it’s trying to cram too much into one film. It tries to be a film about athletic greatness, celebrity and political unrest all in under two hours. As a result, parts of the film feel rushed, which is no doubt the reason it fails to explore any of its themes in greater depth. The part that gets the most attention is, unfortunately, the least interesting aspect of the film: Pelé’s athletic ability.
Focusing most of its attention on Pelé’s incredible talent satisfies no one. Soccer fans already know how great he is and do not need over an hour’s worth of reminders. Non-fans of soccer can get the gist of his greatness pretty quickly from a few of his highlights. By spending so much time on Pelé’s soccer skills, the film keeps hammering home a point that ultimately doesn’t tell the audience much about anything.
The best sports documentaries always use sports as a backdrop to explore bigger themes: “Hoop Dreams” uses high school basketball to explore race, class and education in the United States; “Diego Maradona” uses soccer to explore addiction, fame and identity.
“Pelé” uses soccer to explore … soccer. It mentions bigger issues outside of the sport, but it never focuses on them long enough to make an impact. Considering how iconic of a figure Pelé is, and how interesting so much of his story is, “Pelé” is ultimately a forgettable disappointment.
Daily Arts Contributor Mitchel Green can be reached at email@example.com.