Directed by Erin Leyden
Soccer is world’s favorite sport, with the World Cup bringing the biggest and brightest stage to the game every 4 years. The men’s game is hands down more popular, bringing in millions more in revenue and viewership. But in terms of American sports, the 1999 Women’s World Cup made about as big an impact on women’s athletics as any other person or event in the history of women in sports, and most especially since the inception of Title IX. That year, a hodgepodge group of women came together and achieved something special: they captured the attention of the nation. They also happened to have won the championship, but the real achievement was the sensation they created over a women’s team sport, something not easily done in America, especially considering it was soccer, traditionally not the most popular in the States.
Most sports fans at least remember an aspect of that year’s tournament. Whether it is a name here or there you recall: Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, etc. Or whether you remember that they won. Or probably more likely the case, you remember how Brandi Chastain celebrated her Cup winning goal on a penalty kick. But whatever the case, you remember, and that is significant. Today the sport has grown, and many thanks to that 1999 team for growing the sport in this country. Today young girls idolize the likes of Abby Waumbach, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo. The members of the 1999 team had no such luxury. They were the first. They had no one before them to set the path, no one to look up to but each other. They were pioneers whose personality and success spurred on tremendous growth and acceptance of women’s sports in this country.
With this film, director Erin Leyden has a ready-made winner. The story of the 1999 team is undeniable and irresistible. With that in mind, I suppose it should be no surprise that Leyden admits to not having a direction when handed the project (which also tells me the idea didn’t come before the project; usually a recipe for disaster). But when Julie Foudy showed her the home footage she had taken during the tournament, they had their direction: the magnetic personality of the team. The execution of the film is certainly lazy. The reunion and chronological recap is a tired method for the documentary format. And that’s all they do here. Like Survive and Advance before it, however, The 99ers succeeds in spite of the roundtable reunion because of the simple strength of story, which is nicely accented by Foudy “found footage”.
This group of women was just crazy enough to do what they did. It must be said that the success of the tournament and of the team hinged on two very important factors: the Unites States was also the host country, allowing fans to see the games in person as opposed to having to watch on tv; and the fact that they won the tournament. It is mentioned in the film, but cannot be stressed enough: the only way they had the impact they did, was to win the tournament. A second place finish, and we wouldn’t be talking about them today as we do. The lack of popularity in women athletics, as unbalanced and unfair as it may seem, influenced the outcome and the pressure of the situation. But they were loved by the country because they were their own goofy, unique selves. The home footage really serves well to show us this personality up front and first hand.
The 99ers works as well as it does because it feels personal. Julie Foudy worked on the film as a producer (and it is evident as she drives the questions in the roundtable), but I think it helped put the right emotional attachment to the film. There is enough romantic reminisce to bring out the best in each of the players recollections. They were the right group, at the right time, in the right place. No doubt there was a lot of circumstance involved, and there often is in important moments like these. But ultimately it was the team, and their unity and collective personality that shined and inspired a new generation of young girls to pursue their dreams. It may seem out of place, but there is a scene in the film where they meet with Waumbach and Morgan, the new generation. But it becomes very effective in summarizes the impact the 1999 team had on their generation. The 99ers is a bit clunky in terms of filmmaking, but its charm is in the subject, and the massive impact they made on the persona of female team sports in America.
*** – Very Good