Netflix’s documentary about the soccer superstar is serviceable, but says nothing you haven’t heard before.
Pelé is the kind of sports figure it feels like you’re just sort of born having some knowledge of. I couldn’t tell you why I know who Pelé is, particularly as an American with a serious aversion to sports, but I knew he was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, soccer players of all time. I seemed to have absorbed the information out of the ether. But the new Netflix documentary Pelé (not to be confused with the 2016 biopic) corrected that.
Filmmakers Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn provide an overview of the player’s life, mainly focusing on his World Cup victories in 1958, 1962, and 1970. Interviews with Pelé himself as well as many of this teammates and a few family members round out the core cast, with many speaking fairly candidly about the various challenges of Pelé’s fame and Brazil’s fraught political history at that time period.
Pelé is a pretty good primer on one of the world’s greatest athletes. It incorporates context, there’s emotional vulnerability, and it’s a decent history. While it’s a bit unclear how much of this will feel like new information to Pelé fans, they’re at least sure to enjoy the star’s frankness.
Unfortunately, where that leaves the doc is in middling territory. This isn’t the film to watch if you’re looking for inventiveness or riveting storytelling in the genre. At its weakest, Pelé feels more like a made-for-TV History Channel broadcast than a feature film.
Pelé’s story is a fascinating one, and the right storyteller would be able to dramatize it well enough to engage even the most soccer-ignorant viewer. It’s the story of a Black kid in Brazil who miraculously rises up to bring the nation’s downtrodden team to glorious victory. He becomes a symbol for a nation, an excuse for an entire population to feel a pride for their homeland they’ve never known. He’s also a famous figurehead whose apolitical actions drew criticism when the country was sinking into fascism. He’s an unfaithful husband whose affairs resulted in children he wouldn’t learn about until years after their births.
At its weakest, Pelé feels more like a made-for-TV History Channel broadcast than a feature film.
In short, Pelé is complicated and a lot of the country’s national identity rode on him in a way that few people on earth will ever understand let alone experience.
And that’s a big part of the reason why two British men couldn’t really do the subject justice. Though that may feel a bit unfair, Nicholas and Tryhorn’s direction is tainted by a colonialist slant, one that wouldn’t exist with a Brazilian filmmaker and is actually exacerbated by some of their decisions.
The most glaring issue is Pelé’s reliance on voice-over instead of subtitles for the vast majority of the interviews. That means you’re rarely hearing Pelé’s actual voice, instead it’s a heavily accented British voice that speaks for him. That disconnect starts to feel wrong and out of place the more the VO is relied upon. This is especially true as the film attempts to address the coup of 1964.
To be clear, Nicholas and Tryhorn make a serious effort here to contextualize Pelé amid the chaos. They include interviews with former teammates who do not mince words. The soccer star was famously apolitical, not unlike another megastar whose life was recently explored in a doc, Michael Jordan. But trying to stay “above politics” in a regime that’s kidnapping citizens, torturing them, and murdering them, isn’t an easy stance to stomach, particularly for teammates such as Paulo Cézar Lima, who said, “Just one statement from [Pelé] would have gone a long way in Brazil . . . It’s a criticism I hold against him to this day.”
But the problem with the film is that as glaring as this criticism is, the filmmakers aren’t actually interested in making an argument one way or another themselves. Instead, they both-sides it, including interviews with those standing up for Pelé insisting he had no other choice—not really. In fact, one such supporter, when discussing the comparisons between Pelé and Muhammad Ali (who was famously outspoken), claimed that it was easy for Ali to speak out knowing that the government wasn’t going to kidnap or kill him.
While there’s clearly a difference between an openly fascist regime and the United States of the 1960s, civil rights advocates were still dropping like flies. The government might not openly murder you (and even that’s arguable), but its racist citizens sure seemed to have few qualms about it. It’s hugely unfair to say Ali suffered no risk in speaking out the way he did and the filmmakers squandered a real opportunity to be critical of such an assertion.
Ultimately, this is the whole problem with Pelé—the directors have nothing much to say. They simply want to provide a rudimentary history of an athlete and call it a day. While this is a perfectly acceptable option, it isn’t the most interesting or the one that best serves the story. It renders an exceptional story forgettable.
Pelé premieres on Netflix February 23rd.