Monday, July 23, 2012

Fire in Rome

I don't know who Justin Pemberton is, or what work he has done before, but his docudrama The Golden Hour, screened on TV1 last night, is blisteringly good. The film—which Pemberton both wrote and directed—tells the story of how, thanks to Arthur Lydiard's training, Peter Snell and Murray Halberg won gold for New Zealand within an hour of each other on the athletics track at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Interviews with Snell, Halberg and others are interwoven with historical footage and dramatized scenes with actors playing the athletes. This kind of thing needs to be done very well to work; many directors overcook the dramatizations at the expense of the documentary footage. Pemberton doesn't; he uses the dramatized scenes only to enhance and enrich the real stuff; the actors in them never even speak, which is wise, given that the (older) Snell and Halberg speak so eloquently about their experience. Halberg is in fact mesmerizing, though the most thrilling line (for me anyway, for some reason) is Snell's on what happened as the 800-metres field came round the final bend and he was boxed in behind the front-runners, seemingly unable to get through. It was then, he says, that 'I had the distinct feeling the others were slowing down.' Brilliant. And Halberg, as soon as he'd won and fallen, exhausted, on his back beside the track: 'The fire was gone'—the fire that had burned in him for four years after he came last in the 1500 metres at the 1956 Olympics and resolved to come back and win gold. Above all, Pemberton shows wonderful control of his material, never lapsing into patronizing hindsight or anachronism, not pushing nostalgic emotion down our throats, letting people and events speak for themselves. Brilliant. Did I say that before? If you missed it, I urge you to catch it on replay.

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