Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

If you spray paint it, they will come. Or at least that was the thinking of Warner Communications chair Steve Ross and his minions as they tried to get the United States on the soccer bandwagon in the ’70s. The critical moment came in 1975, when their New York Cosmos were trying to woo Pelé to the team’s home base: derelict, glass-strewn Downing Stadium. A helicopter ride and a few cans of green paint on the field later, the retired Brazilian superstar tripled attendances and, apparently, an entire city was theirs. Paul Crowder and John Dower’s Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos offers a mostly glorious account of the team’s rise and fall. The narrative is exhilarating. The portrait of the unstoppably successful Ross—he also saw the multimillion-dollar potential in a company called Atari—is inspirational. But the doc is most interesting for its discrepancies. On the innocuous side, a montage of commentators and newspaper headlines give wildly differing reports on Pelé’s agreed-upon salary. More important, how certain situations played out become straight-up he said/he said battles between interview subjects—especially when the situations involved Giorgio Chinaglia, the detestable Italian hotshot who joined the Cosmos in 1976 and bought them in 1984. Even while stating quite clearly that he couldn’t care less about what people think of him, he disputes one assertion after another of his fellow talking heads, who include sportswriters, business partners, and other former players. (One anecdote Chinaglia doesn’t challenge is that he once demanded that Pelé bring him his hotel-room TV when his own didn’t work.) With a string of otherwise endearing personalities and a compelling narrative, Once in a Lifetime is marred only by the filmmakers’ excessive desire to remind us that this was the freewheelin’ ’70s. There’s some funky music (fine), plenty of vintage stills (OK), and lots and lots of furious zooms, lightning pans, and ever-quickening halved and quartered screens (nauseating). The overstylization is a minor distraction, though. The film, which encompasses Studio 54, Son of Sam, and the blackout of ’77, entertains until the very end, intercutting the credits with a string of Cosmos-involved interviewees stamped with their current occupations. The guy who rode over Randall’s Island in a helicopter and left the Cosmos after playing three seasons and earning several million dollars? A note, accompanied by a ka-ching!, informs us that Pelé refused to participate. —Tricia Olszewski