'Pelé': Film Review

Pelé in the Netflix Original Documentary Film Pelé.
Image courtesy Netflix
A worthy if unexceptional homage to the King.

Kevin Macdonald ('Whitney') executive produced this Netflix documentary, which tracks the legendary Brazilian soccer star through three World Cup victories.

Perhaps not all athletes deserve a monumental 10-part series like Michael Jordan received in The Last Dance, but Pelé, arguably the greatest soccer player of all time and one of the premier athletes of the past century, merits a bit more than he’s given in this competent, handsomely made if run-of-the-mill Netflix documentary.

Steeped in what could probably now be considered the streamer’s house style — nonstop emotive music, talking-head interviews, archive footage galore, an often breakneck pace — Pelé focuses mostly on the three World Cup titles the star striker and midfielder took home for Brazil, the last one when it was under the rule of a brutal military dictatorship. In that respect, directors David Tryhorn and Ben Nichols do a good job chronicling the push-and-pull between sports and politics, and how winning soccer’s most coveted prize also meant doing it for the honor of a murderous regime.

But for Pelé completists, or those who just want to understand what made him so great, there are a few too many gaps left unfilled, beginning perhaps with why he was ever called Pelé in the first place. (For the record: his real name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, while Pelé was a childhood nickname that has no meaning anyone can remember.)

The footballer’s extraordinary talent on the field, revealed in a handful of skillfully edited broadcasts of his championship World Cup exploits in 1958, 1962 and 1970 — although an injury in the second game of ’62 sidelined him for the remainder of the tournament — may nonetheless remain a mystery to those viewers for whom soccer isn’t part of their daily diet. Footage toward the end of the film of fellow national team winger Jairzinho (many of the great Brazilian players are mono-monikered à la Madonna or Neymar) scoring an impressive seven goals in the ’70 Cup looks just as impressive as what we see from Pelé at times, so what made the latter so exceptional?

Tryhorn and Nichols manage to condense plenty of data into a tightly wound 108 minutes, tracking how the prodigious Pelé rose to stardom at the ripe age of 15 after being selected by the provincial if power-packed Santos FC, where he remained for the entirety of his local career. By 17, Pelé was already competing in his first World Cup, becoming the youngest player to ever carry a team all the way to the final, where he scored two goals against hosts Sweden and gave Brazil its first national title.

After that, Pelé was often referred to as the "King of Soccer,"  his name synonymous across the globe with the sport he practiced so well and so joyously, and with a country that saw some of its brightest days before a coup — supported by the U.S. government, though this is glossed over — struck in 1964, plunging Brazil into a dictatorship that would last for two long decades.

At one point, the film underlines how Pelé’s failure to publicly criticize the military-backed government, especially when it was at its merciless peak under the reign of Emílio Garrastazu Médic, proved a disappointment to some of his supporters. The athlete defends his inaction by stating that he did “more for his country as a soccer player than as a politician.”

Candid and easygoing in present-day conversations, as well as in scenes of him being pushed around in a wheelchair and joking with his former teammates (the doc features a murderer’s row of Brazilian greats, including Amarildo, Mengalvio and Zagallo), the now 80-year-old Pelé has the same winning smile and charming nonchalance that made him such a popular figure in his time. He’s also still capable, as evidenced in one late sequence, of turning on the waterworks hard, which is something Pelé did quite regularly during moments of either victory or defeat — as blubberingly emotional as one of his country’s own telenovelas.

The movie kicks off and eventually culminates in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where Brazil went in as underdogs and came out gloriously on top, thanks mostly to Pelé’s leadership as a veteran midfielder dishing out decisive passes to his teammates. Editors Matteo Bini, Andrew Hewitt and Julian Hart do a particularly impressive job making this final international appearance a memorable one, showing how dramatic it was for Pelé to be the pride of a homeland that was being governed by vicious thugs.

At the time he was only 30, but this would be his last major tournament. The rest of Pelé’s career was devoted to launching pro soccer in America — his exploits for the New York Cosmos are depicted in the excellent 2006 doc Once in a Lifetime — various humanitarian actions, a brief run as Brazil’s Minister of Sports, and a stint in Hollywood, where he starred with Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine in John Huston’s forgotten sports-war flick, Victory. (A clip from that would have been welcome.)

Much of the above is relegated to the closing credits, which is understandable given the amount of material needed to cover Pelé’s life from start to near-finish. What’s perhaps less forgivable is how the filmmakers never manage to seize upon the sheer magic of his game, which is only witnessed in a few extended highlights. Nor do they fully emphasize what it meant for him to be Brazil's first Black athlete in history to achieve such renown, which is something hinted at but never put into any real context. As much as Pelé inspired love and awe among his fans, this polished and well-intentioned biography doesn’t quite do the same.

Production company: Netflix
Distributor: Netflix 

Directors, producers: David Tryhorn, Ben Nichols
Executive producers: Kevin MacDonald, Jon Owen, Jonathan Rogers
Director of photography: Michael Latham
Editors: Matteo Bini, Andrew Hewitt, Julian Hart
Composers: Antônio Pinto, with Gabriel Ferreira, Felipe Kim 

In Portuguese, English, French
108 minutes