A handful of players from the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team riff on what the letters LFG — their rallying cry — stand for exactly. The flow of close-ups in the winning and timely doc “LFG,” from Jessica McDonald to Samantha Mewis to Kelley O’Hara to Megan Rapinoe to Becky Sauerbrunn, has the feel of a pre-match kick around. Only, for all their ease, there’s also a focus that epitomizes the four-time World Cup victors.
Now streaming on HBO Max after its Tribeca Festival premiere, directors Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine’s factually compelling, unapologetically smitten film follows the team after they file a lawsuit against their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, for equal pay. Along the way (and it’s a long way to pay equity for professional female athletes), the team kicks some balls and some butt on the field, then weathers the coronavirus pandemic, as they press their claim for fair compensation. The documentary makes a strong case for just how remarkable a team they are. While “LFG” doesn’t divulge the elusive recipe, it ladles what one teammate called the group’s “special sauce.”
The filmmakers gained a striking amount of access from the team — all 28 of them — as they and their lawyers took on the U.S. Soccer Federation for its unequal treatment of its winning women’s team compared with its underwhelming men’s team. Not that the case is about winning — or popularity. (These players have that sewn up.) It’s about discrimination. The federation’s slogan is “One Nation. One Team,” but the compensation and working conditions are dramatically cockeyed.
“LFG” follows the litigation from its International Women’s Day launch in March 2019 through mediation to a ruling from a federal court judge in May 2020. There will be wins and setbacks — and some very, very long days. When the suit was announced, the team was three months out from competing for a fourth World Cup title.
Perhaps mindful of the team’s legion of young fans — girls and boys with painted faces captured in TV footage of crowded stadiums — the directors have made a doc that pops visually, playfully. “LFG” employs fleet, colorful graphics (by Union Editorial), scoring points in showing how unequal that compensation and benefits can be. The film rides waves of energy — cutting on the field highlights with personable interviews and sometimes nervous media appearances — until the pandemic slows things and forces the directors to resort, like so many of us did, to remote video. And even then, “LFG” has power.
The filmmakers could have done more to place the fight for equal pay within the larger context of women in professional sports, touching on what’s happening on the tennis circuit and the WNBA and what’s happening to sport as big business. It’s stronger for not having done so. The story of these athletes and their dedication to the legal fight encompasses those and broader societal struggles.
Instead of going too big, “LFG” goes intimate, breaking out personal stories, chiefly those of McDonald and Rapinoe. A single mom, forward Jessica McDonald offers a glimpse at the challenges of being a good parent and top-flight, underpaid competitor.
As for Rapinoe, the forward has become one of the most recognizable female athletes in the world. The camera follows her to appearances on CNN and MSNBC, to a cover shoot for Glamour and the Espy Awards with WNBA star Sue Bird (the two are engaged). But it’s her thoughts about the divergent paths she and her older brother took that offers a convincing glimpse of her appeal as an advocate for social justice. Her success and fame and his struggles with addiction comprise “the true American story,” she says. Although she’s recently been called out on Twitter for a racial comment, here she displays an ongoing nuance in her understanding of class, race and gender.
Before there were these World Cup victors, there was the legendary team with Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, et al. Before “LFG!” there was “GFY,” the crass meaning of which an appealing Julie Foudy shares. The EPSN commentator and a member of that two-time World Cup-winning team, Foudy proves a smart link to both teams — and both moments.
After they win their fourth World Cup, a chant starts up in the stands that are repeated during the to the confetti parade and ceremony. “Equal Pay, Equal Pay, Equal Pay,” the syllables of which sound like they’re shouting, “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.” When Rapinoe takes the mike at that celebration, she is gracious to a point: She’s not about to let U.S. Soccer off the hook but goes easy on then-federation president, Carlos Cordiero. It’s as if she says, “Read the room, Carlos.”
“If I didn’t think we could win, I wouldn’t have taken on the lawsuit,” says lead attorney Jeffrey Kessler early on. Sitting behind a table in a conference room, Kessler brings to mind agent-mensch Dicky Fox in “Jerry Maguire.” The framing feels intentional, even if it isn’t. Something in Kessler’s legal tutelage underscores the ethical rightness of the fight.
This past Monday, the Supreme Court handed the governing body of college sports, the NCAA, a unanimous defeat with a landmark decision about compensation for student athletes. The lead lawyer for that suit was none other than Kessler.
Co-counsel Cardelle Spangler as well as team spokeswoman and public relations executive Molly Levinson — who gets teary reading an astonishing full-page ad from Secret deodorant celebrating the team and making no secret of its stance on equal pay — make it clear that this is no one-man operation but a superlative women’s endeavor, with the team leading the charge.