Because Hollywood financing can be complicated, one of the oldest gags in the industry is, "We shoulda shot the deal, not the movie." It happens to be very nice indeed that Bud Greenspan was the one chosen to produce the movie on the '84 Olympics, but nevertheless the backstage manipulations of Sixteen Days of Glory would make a soap opera on their own. Once he was approved as the Games' official moviemaker, the questions Greenspan had to ask himself were: What constitutes an Olympic film today? Should it be done as a traditional documentary? Should it be shown in a theater or on television and, if the latter, as a one-shot on prime time or as a mini-series? Finally, should America, the host, get one rah-rah version, the rest of the world another?
These issues are not altogether new. When the legendary Leni Riefenstahl made the first Olympic film for Adolf Hitler in 1936, she created a long and a short version, as well as different language renditions. Today, while the business options have multiplied, the creative ones have narrowed. Riefenstahl's classic had to compete only against radio and a few moments of movie theater newsreel. In 1984, most of the civilized world saw everything on television even as Greenspan was filming it for presentation two years later.
Also, let's face it, the Olympics is a fairly finite dramatic exercise. How many ways can you show a pole vaulter arching into the sky? I recall going to a screening of the official film of, I believe, the '76 Games, but I can't swear that was the year. I can't bring back a single clear image of a moment of that film. I just remember a blur of muscles straining in slow motion, and pole vaulters arching toward the sky.
If for no other reason, Greenspan was the right choice for Sixteen Days because he is a genuine sports journalist who was not going to get lost in poetics about the Grace of Sport, which is what seems to happen to many uninitiated sports photographers.
Greenspan's fascination is with personalities. He photographs people, and if he captures competition and art as well (and often enough he does), that's merely bounty.
For Los Angeles, Greenspan decided to stick to his forte and look for stories. This was risky because the world press—written and electronic—descends on the Olympics like a vulturous flock and picks the bones bare of all conceivable narrative. Greenspan had to trust that his knowledge of the people and of sports, filtered through a perspective of hindsight, leavened with some good old-fashioned cinematic beauty—18 crews shooting almost a million feet of film—could make even the most familiar, oft-told tales fresh. And, for the most part, he has succeeded—at times gloriously. Greenspan brings particular life and tension to the decathlon, for example—and no one else caught that. It's hard not to leave the film thinking unkindly of ABC and the U.S. press for not giving more attention to Daley Thompson, even though he isn't American. Greenspan shows us that Thompson was the All-World hero that we tried to make Carl Lewis into.
The most touching segment is the opener, the saga of Yasuhiro Yamashita, the surpassing Japanese judo star. Then Greenspan asks us to watch the obvious one more time—Mary Lou Retton and Edwin Moses winning—but he succeeds completely because now their victories come through the eyes (and sighs) of Mary Lou's coach, Bela Karolyi, and Moses's wife, Myrella.
The segment on Michael Gross, the West German swimmer, was a poor choice, however. It might have worked if Gross had won everything, and it might have worked if he had been upset dramatically. But instead he wins almost everything—the flattest of all results. Besides, he isn't any charmer, and swimming makes for the dullest sports photography. Then there's the Mary Decker-Zola Budd coverage, which adds nothing to our understanding of that sad business.
Another complaint: Greenspan made the extra effort to interview a number of the players, both before and after the Games, yet curiously the interviews (except the one with Rowdy Gaines) are lifeless in content, primitive in presentation. Something deserted Greenspan here.
To be fair, though, his style is naturally spare. He refuses to let the camera work get in the way of what the camera can show us, and while this is usually commendable, there were times I wished for a few flourishes.
Similarly, every effort is made to keep the narration from intruding. The magnificent bass voice of David Perry never tells us an iota more than is necessary. Still, I kept wondering whether Greenspan didn't miss something here. Having a more lyrical script would, surely, have enhanced the pictures, not distracted from them.
Overall, these are minor criticisms. It's getting more and more difficult to make an original Olympic film, and Greenspan has brought exceptional life to a genre that has become a bit tired. The shorter, onetime, version has already appeared at Lincoln Center and at least six other selected sites around the world, including the London Film Festival earlier this month. It also has been exhibited for two weeks at a movie house in Los Angeles so that it might qualify in April for an Academy Award. An Oscar would be an appropriate honor to salute Bud Greenspan's career as our finest sports moviemaker, and it would be a fitting tribute to his late wife and partner, Cappy, to whom his effort was dedicated.