The format of this documentary is no different from any other old-school sports appreciation-fest: talking heads attest to the importance of the team, and the sport; actual participants weigh in with their "inside" perspective, and we all learn how the subject changed our world. The refreshing twist of OIAL is the lack of Bob Costas! Not having Costas in a sports documentary is like not getting Elvis Costello for a tribute record, or not getting Gore Vidal to talk about well, pretty much anything; that guy sure fucking likes to talk.
The film documents the genesis of the Cosmos, which surprisingly has its roots in the music industry. Steve Ross, head of Warner Brothers (and a driving force behind both the success and demise of Atari), comes off sort of like the Steve Rubell of the soccer world: an enthusiastic, passionate, somewhat deluded businessman who threw money at whatever struck his fancy. The Cosmos were born when Neshui Ertegun (of Atlantic Records) threatened to leave the company, and Ross appeased him by buying him a soccer team. (I wish I got perks like that at my job the last "gift" I got was a stiff necktie with the company logo on it I'm not even kidding.)
At the time soccer was unknown in the US and continued to be so for many years to come.
It's great watching footage of the mostly amateur '71 Cosmos playing for 50 people in an almost totally empty stadium. Within a year, the stadium was full, thanks to the savvy acquisition of Pelé, who was wooed to the dubious American team with a crazy-money deal that, incidentally, also resulted in a pretty fucking baffling record deal. Having Pelé on the Cosmos was like some 1974 Japanese baseball team getting Mickey Mantle you, know, despite the alcoholism and everything.
The film moves quickly, despite monotonous narration from Matt Dillon, thanks to wonderful period photography and footage, and astute remarks from people like Marv Albert and Mia Hamm (a deleted scene shows Albert, clad in Hamm's undergarments, biting her back, and she fucking loves it oh wait, maybe I dreamt that).
The real meat of the film, though, comes from the people who were there. Pelé unfortunately declined to participate, but there is much amusing commentary from lovable blowhard Giorgio Chinaglia, and legends Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer. The interviews not only provide color, but ultimately make an eloquent case for why soccer is great, why it doesn't work on TV, and why it is now so entrenched in the suburbs of America.
It's a bit too long; probably should have been just an hour. But by the end, Once in a Lifetime more than delivers on proving its opening soundbite: "The New York Cosmos were the best and worst of what soccer in America was." It's a story that does not require any interest in sports to fully appreciate.