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"American Football" is just like the Sounders in the playoffs...

I've been dying to see "American Football", the Sounders documentary movie, for over a year.

The movie footage has been leaking on the internet (both intentionally and unintentionally) for over a year now- super-slo-motion shots, stop-action shots, sped-up shots- and driving us Sounders faithful nuts.  If you're anything like me, you've been dying to see the movie full of stuff like this

So the movie, "American Football", opened with an official premiere on Wednesday evening at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle (and additional showings on Tuesday and Saturday, added when the original showing sold out in record time. There's also a showing in Kirkland.).

Scott Levy has an eye for soccer.  Let me get that out of the way right away.  The guy has put some amazingly pretty, engaging images onto film, and he's got a decent knack for camera angles and lighting and soccer.

But just like the Sounders in the playoffs, his movie "American Football" kind of missed the mark for me.

Does that mean I didn't like it?  No, I loved it.  Any Sounders fan would love it.

It's full of awesome game footage, including some epic goals in Sounders history.  Behind-the-scenes looks at pregame briefings, the infamous Sigi locker room speeches, and interviews with players that most of us only know as guys running around in the stadium are all powerful, compelling stuff for Sounders fans and supporters.

"So what's wrong with it, Paul?" you ask.

There's just a little something missing, somehow.  You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you can't quite tell what the folks making the movie were saying?  Or how the story was okay, but you went away wanting to know a lot more about this guy, or that guy, and why they did something?

That's what "American Football" felt like to me.  Really cool game footage, cool to see behind the scenes, but just... missing something.

One of my favorite authors, Orson Scott Card, wrote a guide to storytelling and laid out four main factors that need to be in a story:

  • Milieu
  • Idea
  • Character
  • Event

The point is that every story has a mix of these things, but the amount of each one should lead to what kind of story it is.  A bit of illustration:

Milieu - a world, a physical setting, a culture in which a story takes place.

Idea - an idea story has a relatively simple structure.  A problem or question is posed at the beginning, and it is resolved by the end of the story.  A murder mystery usually starts with a dead body and ends when the crime is solved.  Frodo sets out to save the world by destroying the Ring, stuff happens, the Ring is destroyed.

Character - a character story is about a person changing (or trying to change) his lot and role in life.  Characters thing their situation sucks, and work on it; the story ends when they either have changed into a new role, give up and accept/return into their old role, and the really depressing stories end with the character despairing that they'll ever be able to change.

Event - in an event story, the world is out of balance, and the characters in the story get involved in trying to fix it; and the story ends when it's fixed or when they've failed completely.  The story is about their attempt to fix something.

So.  What kind of story is "American Football"?

That's exactly my problem with the movie.  It isn't really any one kind of story; Levy can't seem to decide whether it's an inside look at an MLS team, or a search for redemption, or some problem to be solved, or a story about trying to set the world right.

"American Football" is plainly a different world than most of us are used to- the world of professional soccer, in Seattle.  We see glimpses of the culture in the locker room (coaches swear a LOT) and of the physical world that players move in (on the pitch, in buses, in meeting rooms).  So it's kind of a milieu movie.

"American Football" kind of has a redemption story; toward the beginning of the movie, we see the Sounders get thumped 3-0 in Salt Lake, which leads to them bouncing out of the first round of the playoffs; at the end of the movie, they go back and wind up beating Real and moving past that first round. It's kind of an idea movie.

"American Football" kind of scrapes on being a character story, but not really.  There's terrific looks at, say, Sounders legend Zach Scott and how his wife (who he's known since seventh grade!) has financially supported his soccer playing since forever.

We don't see the fight among the team to change their character as first-round-playoff-losers, or at least we don't see them really doing anything to change this other than playing more soccer and winning instead of losing.  It shows us the characters, but not really how they're changing; it just tells us about some of them.

So, just like the Sounders in the playoffs, where they seem like they're a good team and they're fun and engaging to watch, and as a Sounders fan or supporter you wouldn't DREAM of missing a playoff game and yet... somehow they (so far, anyway) kind of miss the target...

...that's how this film was for me.

I wouldn't have dreamed of missing it.  I'll buy it on DVD or Blu-Ray, and I'll watch it again, happily.  But it just misses the target a bit, somehow.

It needs a narrative.  A theme.  It needs to decide what kind of movie it is.

Many folks I've talked with felt like the movie was a bit "too long".  At two hours and forty minutes, it's definitely testing the patience of folks.  My gut tells me that if the movie had more focus, a good 20-30 minutes could be cut without harming the overall film.

So for fellow Sounders fans?  You absolutely still have to see this movie.  It breaks your heart (those miserable 0-3 losses to RSL and LA) and makes you want to cheer (the audience actually did cheer several times in our showing), it frustrates you and makes you marvel at just how amazingly good Fredy Montero is.

We're taken into a much closer look at what we all love, Sounders soccer, but in the end we don't feel like we've really seen a story.

I'd say 2.5 out of 4 stars. Must-see for Sounders fans and supporters, but I'm not sure there's much compelling a non-fan to go.

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