Wednesday, September 11, 2013

NewFest ’13: The Rugby Player

Arguably, he is the best known passenger of the most tragically famous commercial flight in American history.  He was one of the heroes (yes, that is the appropriate word) who sacrificed their lives to sabotage their hijackers’ heinous plan for United flight 93.  Yet, the example of Mark Bingham’s life continues to inspire Americans, beyond the fateful events culminating in that Pennsylvania field.  Not content to let one moment define Bingham, Scott Gracheff presents a comprehensive and highly personal documentary portrait of the increasingly symbolic man throughout The Rugby Player (trailer here), which fittingly screens this solemn day as part of NewFest 2013 in New York.

Bingham and close friend Todd Sarner (who served as Rugby’s technical advisor) often had video cameras on-hand to record life’s highlights and lowlights as they happened.  As a result, Gracheff had a wealth of candid footage of Bingham, from his middle school years up until his final weeks.  Raised by his single mother, Alice Hoagland, Bingham was a dutiful son, who always tried to shield her from the worst of his meatheaded student pranks.  In high school, he took to rugby like a fish to water, playing in leagues all his life.  During college, he was a reserve on Cal’s championship team and was elected president of his fraternity.  He was also gay, which is why Rugby screens as part of NewFest.

As an enthusiastic high school, college, and club rugby player, Bingham has become a role model for athletic GLTB community members, both in and out of the closet.  As a supporter of John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, he has also become an inspiration to Log Cabin Republicans (a fact that does not seem to interest Gracheff much). Regardless, the film conscientiously maintains an intimate focus on Bingham and Hoagland, who tirelessly advocates for increased airline safety and GLTB rights.  As a result, audiences will feel they have a very real sense of who Bingham was as an individual.

Indeed, it is critically important to document the stories of 9-11 on a personal level.  Watching Rugby Player will help viewers understand the pain resulting from Bingham’s senseless murder.  Then multiply that by over 3,000.

Gracheff mostly but not entirely avoids current political controversies, while handling Bingham’s still grieving friends and family with appropriate sensitivity.  Although unjustly cut short, Bingham’s life was well led, easily sustaining the eighty minute documentary.  Stylistically straight forward and genuinely touching, The Rugby Player is recommended for those who insist on remembering and paying tribute to the lives lost on September 11th.  The clear high point of this year’s NewFest, it screens tonight (9/11) at the Walter Reade Theater.