World Premiere, 90 min.
Review by: Charlie Prince
Freedom’s Fury is a historical documentary that tells the tale of Hungary’s piece of the Cold War and an unusual water polo game in 1956 that became a violent proxy for that struggle. I can’t speak for viewers who lived through those times, but as someone really learning about this subject for the first time, I found the documentary absolutely fascinating, among the better documentaries that played at the recent Tribeca Film Festival.
The challenge of the film is to make what are in many ways two separate stories flow together as one, and the filmmakers succeed, even if the film necessarily ends up being somewhat episodic as a result. On the one hand the film is telling the story of Hungary’s situation in the context of the Cold War and how that led to an uprising in Hungary against the Soviet Union. The other story is the tale of the water polo team sent to the Olympics in the midst of that uprising. While connected in time, the characters profiled in the uprising had no special connection to water polo and the members of the water polo team were not principals in the political uprising. As a result, two sets of stars are introduced, complete with their back stories and some sense of their personalities, and because the Olympics came after the uprising, the film does have a somewhat “part a” and “part b” feel to it. But it works because on an international level, the world watched the water polo game as a kind of symbol of that battle, where Hungary could fight the Soviet Union on even ground.
Water polo, it turns out, is a major Olympic event for Hungarians. The film starts with the remarkable success of the Hungarian water polo team in the 1950’s. We learn that because of the abundance of natural springs in the country, the population is very focused on swimming, enough so that they are a force to be reckoned with in a sport like water polo. And sports generally played an important cultural role because of the fearful political environment. The Soviets controlled the government and civilians lived in fear of having a neighbor rat them out to the communist authorities for something they’d said. Sports became the only outlet that was not dangerous politically; it also provided one of the rare opportunities to travel at the time.
On school campuses, students began to expand the range of political discussion. Debates were taking place on speeches by US president Eisenhower about how the US would support uprisings in communist-controlled countries. Hungarian students became more aggressive in daring to discuss the concept of a popular uprising, and this led to a peaceful march across the city, which in turn became a violent march when they were fired upon by Soviet guards. Violent fighting erupted for several days and ended with the skeleton crew of Soviet troops leaving. For a handful of days, Hungary was free and raised a new flag to represent itself. They were deeply disappointed when the United States did not come to their immediate rescue, as they had heard it would in Eisenhower’s speeches. But the United States was focused at the time primarily on a large-scale military conflict taking place at the Suez Canal, involving coordinated attacks by several countries. In a few days, the Soviets regrouped and sent an army in to put down the revolt. A lot of people died in that conflict and once again, Hungary was under Soviet rule.
But it was during that brief time that Hungary was free that the Hungarian water polo team left for the Olympics to defend the title. It was unclear what their status was - did they represent the free Hungary that had existed when they left or the Soviet-controlled government that had replaced it? The members of the water polo team raised the flag of free Hungary and many Western countries offered for them to come be citizens in those countries instead of returning to Soviet-controlled Hungary. But before those hard decisions had to be made, there was a medal to defend, and in short order the Hungarians had trail blazed their way to the semis where, as fate would have it, they were to square off against the Soviet Union. The world at large, fixated as it was on the events in Hungary but also on the Olympics, saw the match as a proxy for the political conflict and the day of the game the audience was as politically charged as you could imagine.
One of the strengths of the documentary is that they have extensive video footage of the game, including key moments. And what a strange game. Far more violent from the get-go, Hungary took a 2-0 lead thanks to two controversial penalty throws. Late in the game, however, things got really ugly when a Soviet player winds up big (on camera) and wallops an unsuspecting Hungarian player in the face, cutting a deep gash near his eye. As blood seeped into the pool, the crowd went berserk, ready to storm the pool and throttle the Soviet players themselves. And although the Olympic security staff was able to stop that from happening, they weren’t able to stop the brawl that took place in the water, as everyone on both teams locked into a brutal fist fight, with the ball floating, unmolested, in the center of the pool. The refs ended the game declaring a Hungarian victory and the Hungarians went on to win the final.
The one weakness of the documentary was in what came in the last portion of the film. An appropriate amount of follow-up time is spent on the aftermath of the game, the decision of some players to return to Hungary, and the unpleasant political aftermath in Hungary itself. But the film spends far too long on a 50 year reunion that took place recently and featured many of the surviving players from the Hungarian team and a handful of survivors from the Soviet side. Although it is charming to see them shake hands after the violence they inflicted on each other in the pool that day, little more is garnered from the reunion and the segment drags down the pacing of the film considerably.
But that is a minor detraction in relation to the film as a whole, which was very interesting, especially from the perspective of someone who knows little of these events. After the screening at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month, the filmmakers answered some questions from the audience. They had been working on the film for years, and thought it would be completed in 2002, 2003, 2004…. but delays resulted in it only recently being completed. A major theatrical release is planned for Hungary in September, and they said they’re hoping for a North American release around the same time. Apparently a Hollywood fictional remake is also in the works, perhaps on the heels of the critically acclaimed Miracle starring Kurt Russell in the tale of the US v. Soviets Olympic hockey match. In any case, I hope for our readers sakes that Freedom’s Fury is released and that you’re able to see it. Of the many documentaries I saw at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, this was one of the best.
© Charlie Prince
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: USA and Contributors: Charlie and Rating: Good ★★★ and Film Festivals: Tribeca Film Festival 2006