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The Rugby Player

Director: Scott Gracheff
Cast: Alice Hoglan, Vaughan Hoglan, Damian Billian, Cameron Dawson, Dan Smith, Todd Sarner

(Mark Bingham Documentary, LLC; US theatrical: 11 Sep 2013 (Limited release); 2013)

Mark Bingham and His Mom

“Being Mark’s mom was like hanging on to a wild animal.”
—Alice Hoglan


“Mark, apparently it’s terrorists and they’re hell-bent on crashing the aircraft. So if you can, try to take over the aircraft.” As Alice Hoglan remembers the last message she left on her son Mark Bingham’s cell phone, you see her standing on the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, trees dark behind her, wind blowing the dry grasses and her blond hair. The camera pulls out to show a small American flag flapping too, part of the memorial wall assembled at the site. “I love you sweetie,” the recording continues,“Good luck. Bye bye.”


It’s a chilling and oddly bracing moment near the beginning of The Rugby Player, as Alice recalls the confusion of September 11, 2001. The scene is set up by recordings, air traffic controllers wondering about the screaming they’d heard on the frequency, then a TV interview with Alice back then: “We’ve been taken over,” her son told her during a brief call from the plane, “There are three men that say they have a bomb.” Her interviewer sits to the left of the frame, Alice to the right, her face composed, her voice steady. “He repeated that he loved me,” she says, careful to remember correctly.


While Scott Gracheff’s documentary—premiering on 11 September at New York City’s NewFest—is named for Alice’s son, it’s clear immediately that it’s about their relationship, about their mutual respect and shared experience as well as their differences. She was a dedicated, sometimes imperfect single mother, he was a great, awkward, insightful kid. She worked temp jobs until she found something like a career as a flight attendant (work she enjoyed until she realized “the faults of the airlines,” she says, the lack of security she says goes on to this day).


He was, as of high school, an athlete, particularly devoted to rugby, and later a successful PR executive, founder of the Bingham Group. When he was very young, following Alice’s split with his father, she tried out names that weren’t associated with her ex (after whom her son was named). It was Mark who came up with Mark, she remembers, one morning as they walked to a first day at a new school.


The film, alternately sentimental and revelatory, is full of stories like this one, stories told by family and friends about Mark’s charge-ahead courage, his energy and his passion. “He came home from school,” Alice says, and he announced, “Mom, I’ve got a sport.” When he said it was rugby, she worried, “Isn’t that a bunch of English guys trying to kill each other, with no pads and blood?” But she committed as he did, if not to the bloody part, then to his love for it, the freedom and the physicality. As his high school coach Dan Smith puts it, though Mark had much to learn about the game, “He kept coming back. I think you can develop a tolerance for pain, you can get used to getting hit in the face. Once you get used to it, it’s not a big deal.”


Other friends remember Mark’s commitment and composure in other contexts. “It was intrinsic in his nature, he was going to go out and find life,” offers Steve Gould, one of Mark’s two “gay parents.” This after a segment in the film remembering Mark’s coming out, a couple of friends’ surprise, his best friend Amanda Mark’s utter lack of surprise, Alice’s own reaction: “I was flabbergasted,” she says, after describing her son squirming in the passenger seat next to she drove. She expected him to tell her he had “gotten a girl pregnant, that’s how ignorant I was of my son.” When he told her he was gay, she says now, “I wasn’t particularly receptive, I was quiet… to my shame.”


In another movie, this moment might have been a point of crisis, transitional and transformative. Here, though, it’s of a piece with Alice’s ongoing narrative, her version of the remarkable relationship that shaped her life and continues to resonate for her. “We were very good friends, and he was wiser than I,” Alice says, “All of this in the body of a goofy kid who wanted to be a rebel. He was a very strange muse.” 


In part, the ongoing narrative is a function of 9/11, the events and memories that are at once painfully intimate and utterly collective. As Steve observes, “There’s a national experience and there’s the personal experience.” Alice has embraced the latter, in her way, in pursuit of honoring her son. She has done so as an air safety advocate is one thing, and also as the proud mother of a gay rugby player, speaking out, attending events, supporting all competitors at the Bingham Cup, a biennial, nonprofessional gay rugby tournament founded in 2002. Her efforts are framed by her understanding of her son’s complexity and also his simplicity, his moral sense, his sport, his joy.


At Shanksville, Alice gestures with her arm. “I’m sad to be back here,” she says, noting that Mark is now forever “inextricably linked” to the site. “There are probably parts of his body still here in the ground.” When she listened to the 31-minute cockpit recording from that day 12 years ago, she says, she knew she was listening to the last moments of her son’s life. Though no one can know exactly what happened or who did what, she heard sounds that were familiar, that provided a kind of structure to the chaos.


“It reminded me a lot of a rugby game,” she says, “I used to hear that kind of roar coming off the field.” She repeats the words she heard on the recording, “Get in, get in!” And then it became like a chant, “In the cockpit, in the cockpit!” The stories of 9/11 continue to swirl and shift, elusive and unfathomable. As Alice tells her son’s story, it is hers, too.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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