Think of the new Netflix film about David Beckham as a UK-centric, documentary version of Friday Night Lights: Come for the football, stay for the soap-opera-level drama—or vice versa, as per your preference.
Directed by Fisher Stevens—yes, if you didn’t already know, the hapless Hugo from Succession has also had a wildly successful career as a writer, producer, and Oscar-winning documentary director—Beckham is a four-hour, four-part, no-holds-barred examination of a simple London-born kid who grew up to be not only one of the world’s legendary soccer players but also an international celebrity with a pop-star wife in Victoria Beckham, a.k.a. Posh Spice.
If you’re not familiar with the fame, the football, the infamy, the romance, the hair, the over-the-top-ness of it all, well: Welcome to the jungle. Or if you’re like me and thought you knew about all this already? Buckle up, and welcome to the rest of the story—told by the people at the center of it all.
Beckham features, yes, David Beckham, and we hear a lot from Victoria, as well as David’s mum and dad, his former teammates at Manchester United, his arch-rivals, his best friend, his former coach, the team’s decades-long receptionist—in short, everybody who was there then and knows what we want to know. The only thing more impressive than the cast of characters, though, is the honesty and sometimes painful frankness they each display when recounting the astounding high and low points of Beckham’s astonishing life.
Episode one opens, appropriately enough, with David tending to the beehives he now keeps outside the Beckham country house in the Cotswolds. We’re shown snippets from the “1,300 or 1,400” videos of childhood games shot by his father, Ted, as he and David recount a life that, almost from its outset, seemed constructed to deliver David, at the age of 12 or 13, to the hands of Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson, who promptly put a contract in front of the child to sign.
Those thousands upon thousands of hours spent alone with a soccer ball in his family’s small backyard, coupled with a standout junior career, produced a footballer with a touch so exquisite, so awe inducing, that it allowed him to essentially deliver a ball from wherever he was on the pitch to a pinpoint location scores of yards away. On the first day of the Premier League season of 1996, Beckham scored a goal for Manchester United from the halfway mark on the pitch—a shot heard round the world that instantly made him a household name.
A few months later, watching television with a teammate, Beckham caught a glimpse of the Spice Girls, pointed to the one who called herself Posh, and promptly announced that he was going to marry her. Soon enough, their romance captivated a nation. “I just fancied her,” Beckham says now, by way of explanation. “I just fancied him,” says Victoria, who makes it abundantly clear in Beckham that while she cares not a whit about football, she cares immensely about her husband. “Okay, this is it,” David recalls thinking when they started dating. “And it’s going to move fast.”
In short order, David was sneaking out of training camp and driving four hours to London to see Victoria for 20 minutes; he was famously photographed dressed in a sarong out on the town with her, thus scandalising a nation. And on the night before a crucial, epic 1998 World Cup match against Argentina, Victoria—on tour with the Spice Girls—calls David and informs him that she’s pregnant with their first child.
What happened the next day is a kind of compass point of the entire documentary: If you’re English or a football fan or watched the game in the ’90s, you already know what this is. Fouled and run to the ground by Argentina midfielder Diego Simeone, Beckham impulsively kicked Simeone on the calf; Simeone theatrically fell to the ground, clutching his leg; and Beckham was shown a red card by the referee and removed from the match, which England lost in a shoot-out, thus eliminating them from the tournament.
Instantly, Beckham became the most hated man in England. “I wish there was a pill you could take to erase memories,” David says now. “I made a stupid mistake. Changed my life.” Before he began hiding from the public, he was yelled at and spat upon by strangers; virtually everyone in the country, from the England team coach to Prime Minister Tony Blair to the collective press and football fandom, blamed him entirely for England’s shameful loss. A London pub hung a doll dressed in Beckham’s England-team kit in effigy. People mailed bullets to him at Manchester United’s offices. When he was introduced or touched the ball at away games, tens of thousands of fans screamed slurs at him, and when Victoria showed up to watch her husband play, those tens of thousands sang vulgar, explicitly sexual terrace chants directed at her. “It’s only now that I’m 47 years old that I beat myself up about it,” David says, recalling the death threats received by his parents.
What stands out in the documentary isn’t just the recounting of these events and the archival footage of all of the above but rather the baring of the soul that both David and Victoria undergo when talking about something that, by and large, they’ve avoided talking about for decades. The entire episode and its long-tail aftermath both scarred the couple—David plunged into a clinical depression; Victoria says now that “I still want to kill those people,” referring to those who invaded her privacy and taunted her and her family—and forced them to circle the wagons and hold fast to their marriage.
And while a return to form on the football pitch is presented here as the salve that healed the wound, it’s the bedrock strength of that marriage that is the clear connective tissue of David and Victoria’s lives. The two speak both together and separately in Beckham; they agree and disagree, poke fun at each other and themselves, and aren’t above airing some dirty laundry—such as when David told Victoria that he couldn’t attend the birth of their youngest son, Cruz (the couple have four children together), because he had a photo shoot with Beyoncé and J.Lo. (Or how David asked Victoria to “do his hair”—as she lay on a hospital bed with an epidural, minutes after giving birth—so he could go out to talk to the press about their new baby.) They tread honestly, if gingerly, around rumours of infidelity amidst a difficult time in the early 2000s.
What we’re left with in the end—betwixt, between, and amidst a fairy-tale life, albeit one with plot twists out of the Brothers Grimm—is a storybook love affair honed and forged in the fires of fame, wealth, and celebrity. But the surprising thing, as it turns out, isn’t that one of the most famous athletes of our time married one of the most famous pop stars of our time—it’s that both David and Victoria possessed the kind of strength and devotion to turn their ridiculously media-friendly, almost childlike infatuation into a love, a marriage, and a family able to withstand anything.
This article was first published on Vogue.com.