In 1984, ABC brought us 16 days and 185 hours of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Last year, ESPN brought us another 16 days and 175 hours of those same Summer Games. Now, Bud Greenspan takes a mere 145 minutes to capture the competition in a remarkable, refreshing fashion that makes commercial television look as if it filmed the whole thing with the lens cap on.
"Sixteen Days of Glory" is the official film version of the 1984 Summer Games and reestablishes Greenspan as the best sports film producer around. The documentary, which opens today at the K-B Janus for an indefinite run, is absorbing, affecting, animating, exhilirating, engaging, enchanting, engrossing, enthralling, inspiring and impelling. In other words, it's worth the five bucks.
It's been nearly two years since the '84 Games, and if you watched a good deal of the coverage, you may ask yourself whether it's worth paying money to to see yesterday's news. The answer is a resounding yes, because Greenspan, 58, uncovers an Olympics that most of us never saw.
From the awe-inspiring opening ceremonies at the film's outset -- when we get a sense of the power and potential danger of fanatical patriotism -- "Sixteen Days" draws a poignant picture of the athletes as people and challenges our senses with an unmatched visual montage and superb storytelling.
Greenspan, after all, is a master storyteller. With stark simplicity, Greenspan identifies the subject, throws a naked spotlight on it and films it to conclusion. In a matter of moments, he creates distinct characters that we latch onto emotionally. And if you're able to watch his tales without getting choked up or chilled a bit, you just might be without a pulse.
Greenspan's unique cinematic stamp is created with lean, crisp writing, a classical music backdrop, slow-motion footage that quickens the viewer's emotional pulse and compelling, gripping narration from his brother, David Perry. (Perry's voice is so gravely urgent that it could stop a bomb from ticking.)
In the film's opening moments, Perry intones, "On 4:30 in the afternoon on July 24th, the world came to Los Angeles." And with that simple statement, our world focuses on the screen for a string of improbable, emotional tales. Greenspan has two distinct advantages over ABC Sports: he's an internationalist of sorts, refusing to concentrate on only the U.S. side of the Games, and he's able to go the athletes weeks after the competition to have them reflect on what has transpired.
The first story is on David Moorcroft, Britain's world record holder in the 5,000-meter run who finishes last in the Olympic final because of an injury. He realizes almost immediately that he cannot win the race, but the competition becomes a personal triumph for him in another way. "I wanted to do Moorcroft first to set the mood that it wasn't going to be Carl Lewis and Mary Decker relived," said Greenspan on a visit to Washington this week. "To give glory to someone who finished last, I thought, would set the tone for what we were trying to do."
Greenspan does document some of what is familiar to us -- the victories of Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton -- but he offers striking new clarity to their performances. We see Moses' 400-meter hurdles final from the perspective of his wife Myrella, and we watch Retton's coach, Bela Karolyi, spur her to vaulting perfection.
But Greenspan generally stays with the lesser-known stories, including the stirring quest of Japanese judo champion Yasuhiro Yamashita to overcome an injury and the duel between Britain's Daley Thompson and West Germany's Juergen Hingsen for the decathlon gold medal.
The film drags a bit in the latter stages -- the pieces on West German swimmer Michael Gross and U.S. marathoner Joan Benoit aren't as draining on us emotionally -- but what stands out is the steady quality of the slow-motion action. The slow motion fast-forwards the level of the viewer's intensity. We see Thompson's veins bulging, Retton's muscles pumping, Benoit's face twitching.
More than anything else, Greenspan celebrates the human spirit, that curious, intangible element that separates us from garden plants, water bugs and spatulas. And when we're finished watching this sentimentality, we feel pretty good about ourselves.
"Sixteen Days of Glory" succeeds in stripping the Games of much of their commercialism, political turmoil and drug controversies. There may come a time soon when the Olympic movement is dead, but Greenspan's work ensures that the Olympic spirit -- at least on film -- will be preserved forever.
Clarification: Last week, we mentioned that Howard Cosell's "Speaking of Sports" radio broadcasts were not available in the Washington area. WBAL-1090 in Baltimore, however, does carry Cosell weeknights at 7:03.