GoffonRugby is an opinion column written by Alex Goff. Follow Alex on Twitter @GoffonRugby
"The Rugby Player" tells the story of Mark Bingham, the former Cal No. 8 who was on Flight 93 during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and who, most everyone agrees, helped stop that plane from reaching its target.
But there’s much more to tell in that story, and as filmmaker Scott Gracheff shows in careful and loving detail, Bingham was a hero before he ever got on that plane.
"The Rugby Player" is perhaps the best non-fiction rugby film made in recent years. It tells the story of our game in America through the life of an intelligent, sometimes wild, kind, aggressive young man who grows up to be a symbol to Americans, a symbol for our sport, and a symbol for gay men as well.
Gracheff starts the film in Southwestern Pennsylvania, with Bingham’s mother, Alice Hoagland, visiting a memorial for Flight 93. It’s cold, lonely, and windy, and that’s perfect as Alice, a former flight attendant, is struck once more by the emotion of what her son went through.
And we go through it, too. "The Rugby Player" tracks Mark Bingham’s life, growing up with a single mother and moving from town to town – fishing to put food on the table, making ad hoc heavy metal music videos, and just being a kid.
And presciently, you see video of a teenage Mark pushing a friend in a wheelchair into a wall of milk crates. Just goofing around, but it conjures the image of Bingham and others pushing (as some stories have it) the Flight 93 drink cart up the aisle to attack the terrorists and try re-take the cockpit
Dan Smith at Los Gatos High School talks about Bingham’s introduction to rugby. Jack Clark at Cal talks about Bingham’s development as a player and a teammate. The mullet goes, and the beard arrives, Bingham grows up, but not in a linear progression, and comes out as gay.
The film doesn’t over-do any aspect of Bingham’s life. It is produced well – the interviews are well-lit, smart, and interspersed with video footage (thankfully there were a lot of cameras around, even on the last night Alice and Mark spend as mom and son, at a Korean restaurant), giving some superb pacing to the entire story. Those interview are smart, articulate - some might recognize Bryce Eberhart, for an all-too-short time head of communications at USA Rugby.
But more than that, Gracheff lets the facts tell the story. He was a hero on September 11, but we don’t speculate too much on the facts. Several in the film have heard the flight data recorder, and so speak with some authority. He was a good rugby player who loved playing, and while the game is put in an excellent light, it’s not hammered into us, either. And he was gay.
For me, Bingham’s coming out stories are a central part of the film. You hear the story from his mom, from friends who suspected and friends who were blindsided. What pleased me as much was the depiction of how rugby as a sport accepted it. Bingham was a part of the San Francisco Fog, and in that story there is no manufactured controversy, no ginned-up hate. The Fog were readily accepted into Northern California’s rugby community, and that’s been a fact throughout the country, and the world.
While many sports struggle with whether or not gay men play that game (here’s a hint, they do), rugby has always been more open about the presence of gay players, and more accepting. In fact, accepting isn’t the word, because accepting implies some sort of deep soul-searching, a need to argue oneself out of a negative reaction. No, rugby players think on more direct terms – Do you play? Do you love rugby? Do you play fair? Great, let’s go for a beer.
"The Rugby Player" somehow weaves a variety of stories – the buildup to a moment of heroism, the story of a sport in a young man’s life, the coming of age of a courageous man, and the making of a new hero, his mom. It’s a complex weaving that could have been slapped together, sensationalized, or simply botched. It’s not. It’s a touching, careful film that might serve as a beacon for gay people, but that beacon also shines a warm, golden light on the game we all – all – love.
For more on The Rugby Player, and where you can see it, go to TheRugbyPlayerFilm.com.
The Rugby Player makes its New York premiere tomorrow, Wednesday, Sept. 11, at 5pm at NewFest, NY's LGBT Film Festival, at the Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center. Tickets can be purchased online in advance at http://www.filmlinc.com/films/on-sale/the-rugby-player.