'On the Map': Film Review

On the Map - Still - H - 2016
This compelling sports tale seems bound for a Hollywood dramatization.

Dani Menkin's documentary recounts the inspiring tale of the Israeli national basketball team's 1977 win of the European Cup.

There’s no surer ingredient for a feel-good documentary than an inspirational sports story, and filmmaker Dani Menkin (39 Pounds of Love, Is That You?) delivers one in spades with his recounting of the 1977 European Cup victory by the national Israeli basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. Compelling enough to anticipate the inevitable Hollywood dramatization of the story, On the Map will prove fascinating even to non-sports buffs.

The game proved a rallying cry for Israelis who had been buffeted by such events as the 1972 massacre of its Olympic athletes at Munich, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1976 plane hijacking that led to Israel’s successful raid on Entebbe. The film‘s title derives from a remark by the team’s captain, American player Tal Brody, who exulted after the win, “Israel is on the map, not just in sport, but in everything!”

Brody, who had abandoned a potential NBA career to play for the Israelis, was one of the team’s several American members. Others included African-American Aulcey Perry, who describes converting to Judaism and enduring a second, ritual circumcision.

Interweaving extensive archival footage with contemporary interviews — “Finally, the Jewish team was kicking ass,” its coach recalls — the doc chronicles Maccabi Tel Aviv’s unlikely victory over the dominant Soviet team, CSKA Moscow. Since the Soviet Union had no diplomatic relations with Israel, the teams had to play on the neutral territory, a small city in Belgium. By the time the Israeli team reached the finals and played against Italy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, national passion had reached a fever pitch. The country virtually shut down while nearly its entire population watched the game. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin even delayed announcing his resignation so as not to interrupt.

Besides interviewing the players themselves, the film also turns the camera on, among others: basketball legend Bill Walton, who had played with Brody; former NBA commissioner David Stern; Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.; and dissident Natan Sharansky, who describes how the unlikely Israeli victory inspired him during his years imprisoned in the Soviet Union.

The story contains no shortage of nail-biting drama, such as Brody nearly missing the finals when, learning his elderly father had suffered a heart attack, he chose to return to the U.S. From his hospital bed, Brody's father urged his son to go back and play in the game.

One of the most moving and amusing segments features the former players, now in their sixties and seventies, reuniting to watch a tape of the championship game. Wearing their old jerseys and shouting at their former selves on the screen, they offer living proof that the years have done nothing to dim their excitement and pride.

Production company: Hey Jude Productions
Director-screenwriter: Dani Menkin
Producer: Jon Weinbach
Executive producers: Roberta Grossman, Nancy Spielberg
Directors of photography: David Gurfinkel, Ital Raziel
Editor: Chris Callister
Composer: Issar Shulman

Not rated, 85 minutes