July 13, 2006

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Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (PG-13)
American professional soccer (no, really) enjoyed a moment in the sun as captured in the wonderfully fun documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos.

This could be the summer when movies finally cross the line in which mainstream fiction starts to take a narrative backseat to documentary nonfiction. In the same way that those trade paperbacks delving geekily into one subject for some 300 words (Cod, for example, by Mark Kurlansky or Stiff by Mary Roach) are far more engrossing to me than any novel, this summer’s documentaries (Wordplay, An Inconvenient Truth, The Heart of the Game, War Tapes, Who Killed the Electric Car and now Once in a Lifetime) are beating the pants off the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Break-Up. Well, OK, not at the box office, but certainly in terms of leaving me feeling like I got my $8.50 worth. These documentaries have coherent storylines, complex and dynamic characters and plenty of take-you-to-another-time-or-place escapism. And where I’ve left the feature fiction movies feeling like I just blew two hours never to be scene again, I left these documentaries a bit buzzed on new information, excited to learn more.

Once in a Lifetime is a perfect example of the surprise entertainment feel of these documentaries. As the rest of the world angonized over the World Cup, Americans were still a little puzzled by the idea that a 00to-0 game is something electrifying. But Once in a Lifetime shows that it needn’t be so. Americans — or at least, New Yorkers — turned out in the tens of thousands in the late 1970s to see the Cosmos, a soccer team created in large part because media mogul Steve Ross liked sports and wanted to own a team of some kind. He used all sorts of influence to get Pele, the best soccer player in the world, to join the Cosmos and quickly the team became the hot ticket in town. And the game received just a few tweaks to the rules to accommodate American audiences looking for a bit of a faster pace.

Though New York’s team had its problems — Giorgia Chinaglia, a player recruited from Italy was both a genius at the sport and a hot head — and the rest of the North American Soccer League was rather flimsy, the movie shows us a brief period in which soccer actually had a shot at being a big deal in the world of American professional sports. What killed it depends on who you ask but generally it seems like the fame of the Cosmos pushed the mainstreaming of soccer too fast — its games were briefly televised before the sport had really gotten a chance to get a toehold. While it lasted, though, the league offered plenty of superstars (many of them quite fetching, by the way — soccer might just be the most female-fan-friendly sport in the world) and lots of possibility for victory. After all, not only is there a league championship to be won but a World Cup.

The movie presents both the drama of a do-it-yourself type organization run by people with big personalities and the excitement of the game of soccer (which the game footage makes look as fast-paced as basketball and as blood thirsty as football). It also gives you context — New York during the 1970s was hardly the well-heeled city it is today. Once in a Lifetime pulls you in and offers you enough explanation to make you want to buy Cosmos season tickets. A-


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