Credit: Courtesy of Prime
by Chris Cassingham Featured Film Streaming Scene

Federer: Twelve Final Days — Asif Kapadia & Joe Sabia

June 12, 2024

Asif Kapadia has had an enviably diverse career as a director, but he’s established himself over the last 15 years — across three films, in particular — as a custodian of legacies. His archival documentaries Senna, Amy, and Maradona married a deftly curatorial eye with a passion for historical sweep, ensuring that the cultural icons at their center, whether living or dead, had their stories conveyed with the complexity they deserved. It would make sense, then, that any sporting giant facing a career milestone with a desire to have it recorded for posterity would want Kapadia at the helm. 

This must have been what Roger Federer thought when he made the decision to retire from professional tennis in 2022. Often referred to as the sport’s greatest artist, Federer is, on paper, the ideal vessel for Kapadia’s preoccupations. The Swiss legend has always been respected as the ultimate sportsman, generous and honest, overflowing with talent, and known outside of his craft as a loving family man. But what is there to excavate from underneath Federer’s reputation during the final 12 days of his professional tennis career?

With Federer: Twelve Final Days as the answer, it appears disappointingly little. Immediately — in fact, before you even start watching the film — you realize that this isn’t going to be the same kind of documentary that recontextualized the complicated careers of icons like Ayrton Senna, Amy Winehouse, or Diego Maradona. Chiefly, this is because Kapadia (here co-directing with Joe Sabia) is tasked with making a film that documents a specific and, crucially, ongoing, period in time. It’s necessarily imbued with the immediacy of its action, but it establishes a limit for the film; the filmmaker’s ability to capture the historical sweep of one person’s career through archival footage gave those three previous works a freedom of expression, and a storytelling approach liberated from the watchful eyes of its subjects.

This isn’t to say that Federer is totally lacking historical context or a critical eye. Kapadia knows that is what people coming to this film, both as Federer fans and fans of his filmography, expect. And indeed, the archival footage included in the film is thoughtfully curated and cleverly matched to visual and emotional cues in the contemporary storyline. Kapadia understands how the minute and the grandiose, the past and the present, inform each other. So, when Federer prepares for his final professional match in the gym, a seemingly innocuous gesture like lying on the ground to stretch means something more when the film cuts to a similarly physical act in the past, such as the collapse of relief and exhaustion on winning Wimbledon more than 15 years earlier.

One of the film’s strengths is to honor the generosity Federer embodied as a player and man by holding space within an already complex and dense piece of storytelling for the other legendary players that played a role in cementing his legacy. When the story closes in on the final match of Federer’s career, its retrospective inclinations kick into higher gear and pay tribute to the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal, the last of whom Federer shared his greatest rivalry and his greatest friendship with. Just as Federer stares down the end of his career, there is a generous recognition that these three players are, perhaps, just a few steps behind him, carrying their own legacies of success, defeat, and physical wear.

The film asks simultaneous questions about legacies: how they’re bestowed and by whom, and how one looks after their own. Federer’s tendency to multitask in this way makes it such that two different films fight over creative space, and the less interesting one wins out. It’s already clear that the “typical” Kapadia documentary form has been necessarily compromised by the needs of this particular film and the fact that its subject is alive. And that means the way the film goes about answering these questions lies in the film itself. The sheen of Amazon, of the Roger Federer Foundation, and the tentative and safely manufactured journeys into and underneath Federer’s body of work makes Federer the film feel like a sanitized bit of legacy assurance; it fights against, and wins out over, the more challenging film Kapadia is capable of making, where the past and the present converse with each other, where the smoothly polished reputation of tennis’ greatest player isn’t tarnished but given a chance — perhaps — to deepen and enrich itself with unearthed complexity. As it stands, Kapadia is operating at half-capacity, tentatively crafting a riskless, shallow, though undeniably moving venture that’s more in service of its star than in search of a unique story.

DIRECTOR: Asif Kapadia;  DISTRIBUTOR: Amazon Studios;  IN THEATERS: June 13;  STREAMING: June 20;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1.