In late November, 1956, the water polo teams from Hungary and the Soviet Union met in an Olympic semi-final match that was of almost unimaginable significance to the players involved, particularly those from Hungary. Just weeks before, the Hungarian people had engaged in the first popular revolution ever staged against Soviet power. Initially able to drive out the Soviet troops sent to restore order, Hungarians briefly lived in a nationa that was miraculously free, if only for a few days. On November 4, however, a Soviet invasion force descended on the country and, within a week, had crushed the invasion, killing or wounding tens of thousands of Hungarian citizens. Because they were held for weeks at a Soviet airport, the Hungarian team found out what had happened at home only after they arrived in Australia for the Olympic games -- when they departed, there had been a sense of home in the air, and a feeling of freedom for the first time in decades. That semi-final game against the Soviets became a political battle fought in the water, with furious Hungarian players cheered on by a sell-out crowd drawn, as always, to the underdog. (Ironically, Hungary was considered the world’s dominant water polo power; because of political events, however, they were seen as the underdog in their match against the Soviets.)
Narrated with surprising skill by Mark Spitz, Freedom’s Fury is a straightforward documentary consisting of talking-head interviews and archival footage of both water polo matches, peaceful protests and, later, violence in Hungary, specifically at the student center in Budapest, where the brief revolution began. Though the film’s opening is water polo-heavy, presenting both background on the sport and the rise of Hungary’s dominance, the bulk of its time is devoted to politics, and the drama surrounding the short-lived Hungarian revolution. What makes this section of the film so riveting is the combination of interviews with the protagonists -- all of whom display tremendous grace and poise in describing the events -- with footage of the revolution. The footage is full of stunningly young, impossible good-looking students who, at first, march peacefully through the streets, astonished by the massive numbers of people from all layers of society (the marchers numbered at least 100,000 people, possibly twice that number when the protest reached its peak) who spontaneously decided to join them. Within days, however, those same students are holding weapons or, often, lying dead in the street. The violent emotional swings of those revolutionary days are difficult to comprehend; the power of each moment, though, can be seen on the faces of those who participated, particularly of the man who weeps when he is asked to recall how he felt during their few days of freedom. “We were all …. family,” he says.
In Australia, meanwhile, the Hungarian athletes were not only trying to prepare for the most important sporting events of their lives, but also to understand what had happened at home, and to decide whether, once the Olympics ended, they would return to Hungary or instead accept one of the many asylum offers they had received. The water polo team -- the defending Olympic champions -- was asked by coach Bela Raki to forget until their matches were over that they were individuals; for those few days, they would play as a unit for what they knew would be the last time. Though asking athletes to play for something larger than themselves is a sports cliché of epic proportions, the request here has deep resonance, because at the end of Games, fully half the team decided not to return to Hungary (something that, in retrospect, is evident in the number of players whose interviews are conducted in English).
Freedom’s Fury’s main weakness is one for which it cannot be faulted: Unlike Once in a Lifetime, another sports documentary trying to appeal to a non-sports audience, it lacks the outrageous personalities and events that might draw the simply curious the to the theater. Most of the ex-players, Hungarian and Soviet, are thoughtful, intelligent, and engaging in conversation. As a general rule, however, they are not memorable. There is, though, one exception to that rule: Ervin Zador, the start of the Hungarian team and just a teenager during the 1956 Olympics, is now a wildly entertaining, smack-talking, roly-poly man who speaks fluent English and remembers the Games with a zest that makes you yearn for him the moment he leaves the screen. (It was his eye that was cut open -- the result of a violent blow, caught on camera -- at the close of the game against the Soviets, filling the water with blood and giving the game its titles of “the bloodiest match in Olympic history.”) Unfortunately, even Zador’s charm cannot make his entire team interesting, and the film inevitable falters when it leaves the political chaos of Budapest for the Games in Australia.
Though Freedom’s Fury is quite reasonably described as a water polo documentary, its best chance to find an audience is probably less with sports fans than it is those who are interested in history, particularly that of the Eastern Bloc. The film’s political history is fascinating, but its ability will appeal to a mainstream audience is doubtful; it seems unlikely that the film will get the exposure and attention it deserves, even with the backing of executive producers Quentin Tarantino and Lucy Liu.