The thing about being a sports fan is that you start to look at people as profiles. Every headline becomes a bullet point. Every bullet point shares the same font, colour and visibility. Consequently, you see an athlete as an anthology of triumphs and tragedies rather than an accumulation of them. When events are seen in isolation – bereft of hierarchy, order, time – they morph into traits. Scores a double century and takes a six-for? Brilliant all-rounder. Wins matches single-handedly? Born champion. Choked in the last over? Human. Drunken bar brawl? Inner demons. Here's where the sports documentary comes in. The best of them restore the linearity of living. They turn bullet points into dots that are meant to be joined.
When events are seen in sequence, they reveal a story hidden in plain sight. Scores a double and takes a six-for? Prodigious talent. Choked in the last over? Reality check. Drunken bar brawl? Lowest ebb. Wins matches single-handedly? Trial by fire. Mental health break? Courage of vulnerability. Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes is right up there in the way it extracts the person from the profile. By constructing a narrative, it deconstructs the image of a once-in-a-generation cricketer – and sees his pieces through the prism of a portrait.
The deconstruction begins from the first minute. It opens through the lens of a British cricket fan, who informs us that "this is a film about loss in the time of lockdown". A telling way to describe a sports documentary. The fan then speaks of how he met Ben Stokes at his lowest. It is 2021, and Stokes has taken an indefinite mental health break from cricket following the death of his father. This meeting on camera becomes the 'Present Day' base – the narrative backbone – of the documentary. The famous Ben Stokes bullet points are visually woven into it: A childhood in New Zealand, a tough move to England, the 2016 World T20 final, the Bristol bust-up, the 2019 World Cup final at Lord's, that Edgbaston Test, his father's illness, his mother's lawsuit against The Sun. As the documentary progresses, a second narrative base emerges, running parallel to the meeting. This base is more conventional: The cameras simply shadow Stokes on England's tour of the West Indies in 2022. But there's very little cricket in it. All we see is Stokes whiling away days in his hotel room between games, conveying the sheer monotony of sport in the age of Covid-19. Cue fancy time-lapse transitions.
Most documentaries might have done a Stokes interview on tour and used that as a single base. Every question would chronologically explore the beats of his career. But the split here works on multiple levels, particularly in the context of who Ben Stokes is. For starters, it depicts a professional athlete on either side of his mental health break. At one point in his hotel room in 2022, Stokes actually watches a video of that 2021 meeting – the other narrative base – and notes how jaded and emotionless he looked. It's a film-within-a-film moment, where the documentary itself seems to be enabling his catharsis. However, this isn't some sort of before-and-after device. If anything, it suggests the contrary – that returning is not the same as recovering. Stokes may seem better in the West Indies. But it doesn't mean he is out of the woods. The life of a sportsperson can be crushingly lonely, not least during a pandemic that restricts social movement. The creaking of a hotel ceiling fan and recurring balcony view imply that it will never stop being difficult – and perhaps it isn't meant to. All one can do is find rhythm in the monotony. The last time Stokes faced the West Indies, he suffered an anxiety attack that triggered his break away from the game. So the sight of him back in action – but also alone with his thoughts – is a small step forward. That's all it is supposed to be.
More importantly, the split legitimises the documentary's disarming shift of perspective. In both present-day narratives, Stokes appears human: Dazed in the meeting, bored on tour. By centering his story on this version of Ben Stokes, it demonstrates that the default state of England's premier cricketer, and many like him, is averageness. He is not a superstar moonlighting as a guy; he is a guy moonlighting as a superstar. What he does is extraordinary, but he feels – and how he struggles – is ordinary. And normal. The sight of Stokes in the interview is so unadorned, so mortal, that we begin to understand his relationship with the sport that immortalized him. We start to sense the subtext beneath the loud text of his exploits. Once we see his pale-faced responses juxtaposed with his lion-hearted performances on the field, we perceive how cricket has perhaps been a medium to 'correct' himself all along. In his younger days, the sport became his instrument to prove that he was not as psychologically complex as he felt. He trained harder than the rest because this was his only means of defeating an inner disquiet he had no name for. He succeeded harder than others – playing arguably the greatest one-day international and Test innings in a single summer – because he feared failing harder than them. His tattooed alpha-male gait became an extension of this quest, one that thrived on misplaced notions of masculinity and mental fortitude.
Failure might have only confirmed that Stokes was "different": Homesick, sensitive, anxious, tired. It would betray the toughness that top-tier athletes are expected to embrace. When Carlos Brathwaite smashes his final over in the 2016 World T20 final, Stokes wears the look of someone who has been exposed. He collapses like someone whose denial has been punctured. To the documentary's credit, it spells nothing out. When Stokes opens up about his mother's battles and father's death, we notice the poignant irony of him resenting the sport for keeping him away from his family. When he opens up about the Bristol brawl and his disappointment in a country that condemned him without trial, we sense the moment he is freed from the shackles of patriotism and process. Until then, Stokes played cricket to prove himself wrong; now he would play to prove himself.
Another thing this meeting does is allow Stokes to reclaim a sense of anonymity. It bears noting here that the British cricket fan who meets Ben Stokes is in fact Oscar-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes. But his identity is almost irrelevant. When Mendes asks Stokes a series of personal questions – at times even nudging him towards his own estimations of an answer – he is not a storyteller hoping to shape his story. He is only a follower of the game, trying to validate the void of the hero he follows. Mendes not being the director of this documentary ties in well with Ben Stokes, the cricketer, not being the star of this documentary. It lets the interview play out like a therapy session between two adults. With those like Virat Kohli disclosing their own mental health struggles lately, a therapy session defining a story about sporting invincibility is a stirring statement.
Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes is named after a tattoo of the mythological bird on Stokes' right forearm. But it treads the sore skin concealed by the ink. In many ways, this documentary brings to mind Damien Chazelle's First Man, where greatness unfolds as something incidental to the grief of being human. The moon is more of a consequence than a destination. Ben Stokes is very human, and while the narrative is designed to tell us precisely this, it's also conceived to show Stokes himself this. It's a rare documentary that chooses to be in conversation with the man it reveals. As a result, the viewer comes away with the distinct feeling of having become a part of a process. A process that translates shame into pride, weakness into strength, confession into commentary, and most of all, sport into life.
Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes is available to stream on Prime Video.