Last week’s Test match between England and South Africa served up another reminder of Ben Stokes’ seemingly limitless powers on the cricket field. From 147-5, he was instrumental in dragging England to 415, racking up his 12th Test hundred in the process. He was also the enforcer with the ball, a genuinely nasty spell of fast, short-pitched bowling prizing out Rassie van der Dussen and Keegan Petersen after the duo had kept England wicketless for over three hours on the final afternoon.
Given the man’s incredible skill levels and the range of his physical feats, it’s remarkable that Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes, the Sam Mendes-narrated/presented documentary on Amazon Prime Video, devotes no screentime whatsoever to even the most rudimentary analysis of Stokes’ game. Instead, the film keeps its eyes and ears firmly on Stokes the man, following him through those personal highs and lows: the September 2017 brawl outside a Bristol nightclub culminating in affray charges, his frequently prickly relationship with the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board), the 2019 World Cup win, his Ashes heroics at Edgbaston and so on.
Amazon’s previous cricket documentary, The Test, offered a behind-the-scenes view of the Australian men’s team, the dressing room emotions, the planning, the conditioning. Phoenix from the Ashes is about the mental and emotional ‘butcher’s bill’ that elite-level athletes have to contend with—what the media scrutiny does to them and their families, the existentialism that can set in when you’re too busy pushing your body to the limit (and, as everybody from Joe Root to the late Shane Warne swear during the movie, nobody pushes their body to the brink like Ben Stokes does). And though it seldom pushes its difficult questions to breaking point, Phoenix from the Ashes is a diligently assembled film about one of the most compelling cricketers of the 21st century.
Visually, the film makes solid use of cricketing footage, especially the stump microphone that gives us an abundance of all-Australian sledges during the 2019 Edgbaston Test. Listening to Tim Paine and co. take the piss out of every English batter (including Stokes was very entertaining and makes you more than a little angry with cricket broadcasters who remain determined to sanitize the sport. Not that Stokes himself is shy of the occasional sledge: you’ll be taken aback by the sudden loudness and intensity of his own 2020 verbal tirade against West Indies batter Jermaine Blackwood. And then, of course, there’s the footage of the Bristol brawl, where Stokes decks a man with a wrecking-ball of a right hook after the latter came swinging with a bottle. The film is careful to follow it up with clips of the gay couple Stokes was defending that night, wherein the two men admitted they felt scared for their lives before the cricketer intervened.
Phoenix from the Ashes displays a very good balance in terms of character: there’s his predecessor as captain, Joe Root, to provide earnest, thoughtful, clear-eyed commentary on proceedings. There’s Stokes’ Durham and England mate Mark Wood speaking approximately seven hundred words per minute (his imitation of Riche Benaud is outrageous), giving us unvarnished and visceral reactions. Then there’s the women in Stokes’ life: his mother Deb and his wife Clare, whose segments take us right at the heart of Stokes’ character: what he’s like as a friend, a partner, a father.
In a break from the unwritten rules of big-ticket sports documentaries, this film doesn’t feel the need to vindicate every single aspect of its subject’s personality. As Root says during a poignant scene, “I will say this about Ben: not too many people get to see the best of him.”
There are other simple but efficient touches, like ‘framing’ key moments in his life with shots of Stokes jogging against the backdrop of a typically greyscale English beach. The incoming tide is used to punctuate the most emotional moments, like when Stokes got to know that his dad Gerard “Ged” Stokes was terminally ill (Ged passed away in 2020).
The Sam Mendes interview that holds the whole film together in a coherent narrative, was conducted just two weeks into Stokes’ eventual four-month absence from all cricket (July to October 2021). The all-rounder had taken the decision for his mental health and watching him here during that phase is painful at times. His eyes radiate hurt and exhaustion, his Olympian frame feels slouched, as though we were witnessing his superpowers contracting in real time. Mendes gently walks him through the most difficult questions but it’s clear that Stokes is running on fumes.
Remarkably, towards the end of the film there’s a scene where Stokes is watching this same footage (can there be a clearer example of YouTube’s influence on filmmaking than this ‘reaction video’?) where Mendes has just asked him an emotionally loaded question (“do you think you do what you do for your dad?”) and in response, his eyes are blank and he’s curiously affectless, as though not fully aware of the other people in the room.
“Sitting down and watching that was a real eye-opener about how fucked things were for me then,” Stokes says in this latter scene. “I notice how emotionless I was. I don’t remember much about what I was saying. I’ve never seen myself like that before. Every time Sam (Mendes) was asking me a question I was like, ‘wonder what I said here'”
It's not every day you see an international sports icon being this unguarded on camera. Phoenix from the Ashes would have been compulsory viewing for that reason alone, actually, but as it turns out this is also a film with narrative flair and an eye for the transformative moment.