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Rio 2016 Review: Olympics Opening Ceremony Is Uneasy Blend of Culture and Commerce

NBC skirted controversies and sold itself, but Brazilian filmmakers Fernando Meirelles and Daniela Thomas still managed to capture the host nation's culture with moments of pared-down power.

Olympics opening ceremony

Fireworks over Maracana Stadium at the opening ceremony at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Photo by Felipe Dana/AP/REX/Shutterstock

During its coverage of the Olympics’ opening ceremony Friday night, NBC aired an interview with two of the event’s co-directors, Brazilian filmmakers Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) and Daniela Thomas (“Paris, je t’aime”)—though it’s unclear if anyone from the network was listening. Meirelles and Thomas explained the purpose behind the performance, which was to avoid the host nation’s usual navel-gazing (“talking about their belly buttons,” as Meirelles put it) in favor of global issues, connecting the history of Brazil to the specter of climate change.

Perhaps he meant that the navel-gazing would be reserved for NBC: With “Today Show” talent emceeing the spectacle at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium and Bob Costas plugging The Golf Channel from the main set, the telecast had the feeling of an especially expensive presentation at the Television Critics Association’s biannual get-together, laying on the salesmanship a little strong.

Rio 2016

Fireworks at Rio 2016.

Photo by David J. Phillip/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Having shelled out $4.4 billion for the U.S. television rights to the 2014-2020 Olympics—and another $7.65 billion to extend the contract through 2032—it’s no surprise that NBC should milk the still-lucrative market in live sports for all it’s worth. But as the evening wore on, it was hard to shake the feeling that the network had trammeled on the very event we’d tuned in to see.

Rio 2016

Brazil former marathonist Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima fires the Olympic Flame.

Photo by Daniel Ramalho/AGIF/REX/Shutterstock

In the 35 minutes that passed before the actual ceremony even began, for instance, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, and Hoda Kotb chattered on with the tight smiles and forced enthusiasm of put-upon store clerks; a “Meet the Commentators”-style montage introduced us to Mary Carillo (playing soccer), Tom Brokaw (riding horseback), and Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir (enjoying a parade). Professional golfer David Feherty interviewed President Obama. Hopeful images—of Rio, of the athletes, of Olympics past—unspooled, burnished with bright colors.

We could expect “a spirit of revelry that endures in the face of everything else,” Costas promised in his opening voiceover, but if Meirelles and Thomas ultimately delivered on this point, it was not exactly NBC’s doing: After all, the one highlight of this introductory interlude, the jubilant mugging of the track-and-field team during an interview with star runner Allyson Felix, was unplanned.

The spirit that prevailed on the network was in fact one of commerce, which sat uneasily alongside both the theatrics inside the stadium and the real world beyond. “It’s complicated when it comes to politics here in Brazil,” Lauer noted as acting president Michel Temer greeted the crowd, echoing his colleagues’ uncertain allusions to the political turmoil in Brazil, including the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.

Rio 2016

Gisele Bundchen at the Rio 2016 opening Olympics ceremony.

Photo by David J. Phillip/AP/REX/Shutterstock

As to the Olympics themselves, of course—which have strained the country’s budget in the midst of an economic downturn, caused untold infrastructural headaches, and displaced thousands, per The Nation’s Dave Zirin—never was heard a discouraging word. There were only the “undeniable realities of political controversy,” the need to “put the headlines aside,” the desire to “hit the reset button.” Money talks—or doesn’t, as the case may be.

It’s hard to blame NBC for selling itself; less so for skirting the issues facing Brazil, given the rather forthright content of Meirelles and Thomas’ energetic production. If the comparatively low budget let to a few disappointing moments in their brief narrative of Brazil from the beginning of the world to the present day—I’ve seen more convincing “nature” effects at a Rainforest Cafe—it nonetheless offered a chance for more than one sequence with pared-down power. The crowd could be heard singing the national anthem, accompanied by a single guitar and a handful of strings. Performers representing those stolen to Brazil during the years of the Atlantic slave trade wore heavy boxes on their dragging feet. A winsome tribute to Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont featured an animated flight past Rio’s most iconic landmarks, as if spliced in from a sequel to “Up.”

Rio 2016

Opening Olympic ceremony in Rio 2016.

Photo by Heuler Andrey/AGIF/REX/Shutterstock

Indeed, it was the ceremony’s most explicit reference to the clash—and collaboration—of cultures that led to the night’s most stunning sequence, at least until the Brazilian delegation concluded the Parade of Nations and the ignition of the Olympic torch. To a distinct, percussive thrum, framed by shifting boxes of light, figures in red faced off against figures in gold and silver on the floor of the Maracanã, representing divides of race and class that have periodically threatened to pull the country apart. Broken into smaller and smaller fragments, the light seemed to burst, and the function of the Games in a tumultuous world finally began to register: A dance party erupted, with much the same kinesthetic joy as sport itself, and without the crush of commerce. It was just a bunch of people, of all shapes and colors, moving in unison.

And at that moment—at that ordinary, human, surprisingly beautiful moment—even NBC couldn’t cut away.

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