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The Longest Game Review

The Longest Game is a documentary about a group of elderly men who gather in the afternoon to play a special game together, valuing the wonder of their lives.

If I make it to 87, and I hope I do, I want to be playing paddle tennis in the autumn chill with a few friends, reflecting on the years behind. The passage of time can only tell if that will ever happen, but until then, there is Camille Thoman‘s The Longest Game, a deeply personal and genuinely affecting documentary that invites us to witness aging in a truly authentic light, one day at a time.

Deep in the pastoral countryside of southern Vermont lies a small town named Dorset, a quintessential New England village that is home to just over four thousand people, though that takes a dip in the winter months. Living here are a group of elderly men, most well over 80, who for more than two decades, nearly every day, have stopped what they are doing at 1:00 in the afternoon and come to play a little known game called paddle tennis, officially called platform tennis. It’s a game derived from regular tennis but played on a court one-third the size of a normal court surrounded on all sides by chicken wire twelve feet (3.7 m) high. They play all through the winter, the platform heated, and we watch and listen and observe and learn as these men share their histories and passions, heartaches and joys, carrying us through the season and then much, much more.

We meet Hal (87) and Charlie (87) and Maurie (87) and others, each who take their turns on the court, playing in doubles, taking the sport seriously, or at least as seriously as they can. Off the court, we sit and listen as they offer reflection on their years, telling of lost passions and grateful endeavours, each with a poignant and often humorful take on their own contributions to life itself. Some have already lost loved ones and speak of the profound impact of those who have loved them back. These are men aware of their mortality, naturally meditative on past choices and consequences, carrying with them bundles of personal triumphs and sorrow we can only ever glimpse.

Thoman wisely keeps herself almost entirely silent, her subjects fully aware they are on film, yet she lets them tell their stories with few on-screen prompts. They sit in their homes or on a living room set arranged on one of the courts, and speak openly about whatever seems to be on their minds. We do see producer Elizabeth Yng-Wong, a young filmmaker who is at the same time filming a documentary on her father – which Thoman found was featuring similar themes of change – speaking with these men, and helps to give perspective on people generations ahead. This and a brief shot of young men also playing the sport offer surprising contrast, and more importantly, pause to consider where we are ourselves in this long game.

There’s no escaping the melancholy overtones, something that perhaps can’t be avoided, and yet it’s remarkable how uplifting many moments of The Long Game are. One man watches decades-old movies of his family, and is overcome by emotion, offering words that have great potential to shake the viewer. Another shares sage advice on what connections to his deceased wife really means, noting that it is not in the spaghetti sauce she left still sitting in the freezer but in far more tangible places.

You can’t watch this and not project yourself into whatever future you have. This is not a film aimed at false sentiment or contrived emotional ups and downs. Instead, it is a celebration, a reminder that we are indeed finite and that the time from now until then is ours to make. The film’s final moment makes that a challenging truth. The message: Find your court, play your game, and make each swing count.

The Longest Game will premiere on PBS in 2018

The Longest Game Review

Movie description: The Longest Game is a documentary about a group of elderly men who gather in the afternoon to play a special game together, valuing the wonder of their lives.

Director(s): Camille Thoman

Genre: Documentary

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