A Brief Commentary & Review of “Swimming with Men”
Mountain Shadow’s selection for December, 2018
by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director
“I don’t like to swim, really. You know what swimming is to me? Staying alive when I’m in the water.” – Paul Stookey, singer / comedian
In the film, “Swimming with Men,” stayin’ alive is the challenge facing Eric, a middle-aged accountant executive whose hum-drum career, marriage and family life has become so utterly and predictably dull and meaningless that his only escape is swimming solo laps after work. That is, until one day he finds himself sinking – both literally and metaphorically -- to the bottom of the pool. Then he opens his eyes and sees before him the unlikeliest form of re-immersion, initiation and rebirth. His revelatory discovery is that it’s all about coming alive once again, while he’s in the water.
Here’s yet another film with a typical storyline; about a no-talent group of underdog sports enthusiasts that strives -- through perseverance, grit, sheer determination and team spirit -- to achieve some degree of personal triumph and collective victory. And, as with any film that’s honest enough to admit it, this fictional tale is based on a true story. In this case, it’s an adaptation of a 2010 award-winning documentary that chronicled the adventures of an actual men’s synchronized swimming team from Sweden, competing in Milan.
For those who might view this film and say they’ve seen so many other versions of the same storyline, I have a standard comeback. There are really only a finite number of different plotlines to our human story. At some point, novelty only comes in how well this particular version of that story is portrayed. In this case, “Swimming with Men” unfolds with humor and genuine pathos. As another reviewer puts it well:
“In the irreverent spirit of The Full Monty, Swimming with Men follows a gang of hard-luck misfits who form a men’s synchronized swimming team and then seek redemption the only way they know how: by courting humiliation and competing in the world championships. In truth, the competition is irrelevant, as the film truly celebrates the enduring salve of male companionship in the face of aging, loneliness, failure, death, midlife crisis, and existential ennui. And its central pleasure is watching its bevy of beloved British character actors have a hilarious time bickering, melting down, and ultimately caring for one another while flapping, vanity-free, in the pool.”
In the film’s storyline, the group has strict rules by which all members must adhere. Rule #1 is that no one talks about the club. “This club is not just about synchronized swimming,” they explain. “It’s a protest against the meaninglessness of life; against who we might become with age.”
And then there’s Rule #3 which only looks good on paper: “No one shares their personal life.” Which becomes utterly unrealistic, of course; and which is the underlying point of the whole human story.
Those of us men “of a certain age” will recall an era of circle drumming, along with Robet Bly’s best-seller back in the nineties (of the last century), based on the earlier Grimm’s tale, Iron John:
There’s the Wild Man in the forest, where he has absconded with a King’s son. There, the boy is forbidden to dip his finger into a golden spring; and which, of course, the boy does. With the mop of hair on his head having then turned to gold, he is subsequently banished from the forest and left to seek his way in the real world; not only through heroic exploits, but also daily toils as one of another king’s gardeners. He will eventually win the hand of that king’s daughter, and break the enchanted curse that had once turned Iron John into the Wild Man from the forest. So how does he do it?
With Iron John’s help, providing three noble steeds, the young adventurer’s conquest and ultimate victory will result from catching three golden apples thrown three different times by the fair princess at a festival; a sporting event in which all the knights of the kingdom compete to win the royal bride.
Different sport, and a fairy tale? Yes, but essentially the same underlying human story! jb