Even if you know nothing about rugby, or the massive importance of the 2001–15 All Blacks national team to New Zealanders, Chasing Great lays out the stakes clearly in its earliest moments: No team has ever won the Rugby World Cup two consecutive years, and New Zealand team captain Richie McCaw has announced that the 2015 season will be his last. Then the documentary jumps into nostalgia.
A subtle evocation of Richard Donner’s Superman makes the film’s trajectory obvious. Directors Justin Pemberton and Michelle Walshe combine home video of McCaw as a heavyset and extremely athletic farm kid discovering his talents, family interviews, and dreamy reenactments, all under the low rumble of McCaw’s voiceover.
It’s clear where all of this is going, but McCaw surprises with his mental rigor (he excelled academically) and total commitment to his sport (he plays with a stress fracture in his foot). He’s a meticulous strategist who attends to tiny details and has cultivated several habits of highly effective open-side flankers. He’s almost preternaturally calm despite the multiple pressures of his final season, through early victories and three stunning midseason losses. This is the film’s “Rocky Sawing Tree Trunks” moment, in which the hero aligns his values and actions and rallies for the climax.
The haka is a traditional Maori war cry and dance sequence performed by a group, a pregame tradition of the All Blacks; McCaw’s parents reminisce early about the preteen Richie practicing the haka in the backyard. There’s nothing else like it in sports, and when the directors frame the whole team for McCaw’s final booming haka, it’s pretty clear, even to Americans, how this whole thing is about to play out.
Directed by Justin Pemberton and Michelle Walshe
Opens March 2, Cinepolis Chelsea Cinema
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2018