Even if you call football “soccer” like this ugly American, Netflix’s “Beckham” might be a documentary for you.
Director Fisher Stevens’ four-part series will certainly remind viewers of David Beckham’s greatness on the pitch, but off the sidelines the project is at its best. Stevens had extensive (“unprecedented,” according to Netflix press releases) access to David and Victoria Beckham — until he didn’t.
Stevens is a serious documentarian: He directed Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2016 Nat Geo climate documentary “Before the Flood” and won an Oscar in 2010 as producer of the 2010 documentary “The Cove.” He also received an Emmy nomination in 2020 as executive producer of another Netflix documentary series “Tiger King.” And when Stevens stops asking questions, “Beckham,” an otherwise very good documentary series, finds itself in trouble.
At the end of Episode 3, the question of David’s alleged extramarital affairs from his time in Madrid comes up. Thanks to Netflix’s binge model, viewers are just minutes away from the fourth and final episode, which feigns a return to the topic of Beckham’s alleged infidelity but keeps circling around it.
In separate interviews – they are rarely interviewed in the same room – none of the Beckhams ever give a direct acknowledgment or denial. That’s fair, because Stevens never directly asks whether David had an affair.
Speaking to the Sunday Times of London, Fisher explained his approach. “It wasn’t pleasant, but we got into it,” he said. “For me it was about, ‘How did your marriage stay together?’ You’ll see how he reacts. “I spoke to both of them about the difficulties they went through.” (IndieWire attempted to reach Stevens for this article but did not receive a response.)
It’s a difficult question, but one that should be unavoidable in an investigative documentary that focuses primarily on the Beckhams’ marriage, their celebrity and their relationship with the media. Instead, the crisis is presented not as a crisis of infidelity or an action by the Beckhams, but as a crisis of the tabloid press.
Stevens begins with David: “So, several tabloid reports were published, and how did that make you feel?”
Beckham speaks slowly, somberly and deliberately. “There were some terrible stories that were difficult to deal with,” he said. “It was the first time me and Victoria had faced such pressure in our marriage.”
Cut to Victoria, who also gives an indirect answer to an indirect question. “Would you say that was the hardest time of your marriage?” Stevens asks her.
“One hundred percent. “It was the hardest time for us because we felt like the world was against us,” Victoria said. “And here’s the thing: We were against each other, if I’m being completely honest. You know, until Madrid it sometimes felt like we were competing against everyone else. But we were together, we were connected, we had each other. But when we were in Spain, I didn’t really feel like we knew each other either. And that’s sad.”
We then return to the boys, with Stevens’ camera once again focused up close and intimate on David’s face. He talks about the feeling of loneliness in his first days at Real Madrid, the club to which Beckham was sold after half a life at Manchester United.
In another excerpt from Victoria, she talks again about how “hard” this time was for the couple.
Back to David.
“How did you survive that?” Stevens asks.
“Um, I don’t know. (Long pause.) I don’t know. (Another long pause.) Um, I honestly don’t know how we got through that. Victoria means everything to me. Seeing her hurt is incredibly difficult, but we are fighters and back then we had to fight for each other. We had to fight for our family. And what we had was worth fighting for,” Beckham said. “But ultimately it’s our private life.”
End of conversation.
To put it bluntly: I don’t care about celebrities’ personal lives. I find tabloids disgusting, so I don’t read them. (The British tabloids are a villain in their own right in “Beckham,” with plenty of evidence to back this up.) Until “Beckham,” I didn’t even know about the Beckham affair allegations.
But in a documentary that successfully interrogates his passion for football, his single-minded devotion that often veers into selfishness, and the complex relationship with his father who insisted his son love the game, Stevens was striking gave free rein to his topic The Theme alone.
This kind of vagueness on a key subject weakens a documentary. Did the filmmaker get too close to his subject – or worse, too intimidated or enamored? (The Beckhams are not producers of “Beckham.”)
Which brings me to the show’s other flaw: there’s too much Stevens in “Beckham” for my taste.
It wasn’t egregious, like director Rachel Fleit’s strange self-interviews in “Bama Rush” (“Beckham” is also one much better documentary than “Bama Rush”), but with Stevens it happened early and often. As “Beckham” opens, the former England football captain dons a full beekeeper’s suit to look after the beehives at his country house.
“What’s your darling’s name again?” Stevens asks.
“There’s a little argument going on in the house at the moment,” Beckham replies. “I think it should be called ‘Golden B’s’, Victoria thinks it should be ‘DB Sticky Stuff’.”
“That could get you in trouble with HR,” Stevens jokes.
To be fair, Stevens is a creative here making a clear creative decision. Each of the four episodes begins with a conversation between him and David; Episode 2, “Seeing Red,” begins with Beckham making coffee for Stevens, who in turn thanks his “buddy.” It all seems a bit too chummy to me.
The choice is not unique among documentary filmmakers; Errol Morris’s voice can be heard off-camera in some of his Interrotron interviews (and Fisher has his own version, with intense close-ups of Beckham and other football players, often so we can see their reactions as they watch an old game).
And unlike most documentarians, Stevens was an actor long before he became a producer and director. Until recently, he was best known for his role opposite Ally Sheedy in the Short Circuit films, but he has been working for almost 50 years. Today he is best known as an actor for his portrayal of the crazy Hugo Baker in “Succession”.
Stevens occupies a rare and enviable place: As he approaches 60, his careers as a producer, director and actor appear to be nearing their peak. “Beckham” is a hit: it was the streamer’s number. 1 series in the daily top 10 since its release on October 4th. However, avoiding an important difficult question, the HR joke, and thanking his buddy for the coffee is a showstopper for actor Stevens and does Stevens, the filmmaker, a disservice. And he’s a good one. “Beckham” is a very worthwhile watch – but if Stevens gets out of his own way, he could be great.
Dana Harris-Bridson contributed to this report.