Monday, December 7, 2015

Documentary Series Review: ESPNs 30 for 30 (2009 to present)


I'm a maniac for sports, and I love good documentaries. It follows that ESPNs massive 30 for 30 series of sports documentaries done by different directors on a vast range of topics would appeal to me. Over the past several years, I've seen nearly every single one of the seventy-three films released, and the series as a whole has been excellent. It would take an insanely long post to go over the individual films, but here are the highlights and lowlights as I see them. You can assume that any of the films not specifically mentioned are quite good, if not my absolute favorites.

30 for 30 Volume I (2009 to 2010)

Highlights:

The Legend of Jimmy the Greek. This chronicles the rise and fall of the man who brought sports betting to the national consciousness of the United States. Jimmy was a street guy with a knack for picking winners as a young man, and he created and sold his own persona to a national audience on one of the very first sports talk TV shows in the 1970s. It's a gripping look at the rise of sports gambling, a man in the middle of much of it, and how a racially insensitive, though scientifically logical, remark began his fall out of public acceptance.

The U. Following the Miami University football program's rise to national dominance during a time when college sports was just becoming a cultural and commercial juggernaut. The football part of the film is interesting enough, but the connections between the players, the program, and the local Miami community make this a study of social values as much as sports fandom.

Miller's antics used to drive me nuts.
This doc showed me just how funny
he was, though.
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks. I'll admit it. I mostly love this film because Reggie Miller was a hilarious trash-talker who loved getting under the skins of equally annoying opponents. Miller's recounting of his various scuffles, his inferiority complex caused by being the younger brother to the greatest female basketball player of all time, and his mind-game tactics is endlessly entertaining. Of course, if you simply hate Reggie Miller, you'll want nothing to do with this film. He actually used to annoy the hell out of me during his playing days, but this film helped endear him to me a lot more.

The 16th Man. The powerful story of South Africa's championship run during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, held in their home country. The tale of what this team meant to a country still trying to come to grips with the abolition of apartheid is incredible. Much time is given to then-president Nelson Mandela's connection to the team, and the ways that he viewed them as a source for national healing rather than division. This story was dramatized in the Clint Eastwood film Invictus, which I haven't seen, but I doubt it can be as moving as this documentary.

The tragic story of Andres Escobar made for my favorite
doc in the 30 for 30 series so far. 
The Two Escobars. My favorite of Volume I. This is the tragic tale of Andres Escobar, the brilliant Columbian soccer star who had the horrible misfortune of kicking the ball into his team's own goal during the 1994 World Cup held in the U.S., resulting in his team's loss and unexpected early exit from the tournament. He would then be gunned down by vengeful thugs a few weeks later in Colombia. The film documents the deep and long-running connections between the all-powerful drug cartels and the national soccer league teams in the country, connecting some curious dots between Andres and the "other Escobar" - notorious drug lord Pablo. Fascinating, chilling, and heart-wrenching, to say the least.

Once Brothers. The story of Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac, two great basketball players who were friends and teammates on the Yugoslavian men's national team. The team was one of the best in the world, before the country was torn apart by civil war in the early 1990s. This war separated Petrovic and Divac for years, though both went on to play in the NBA. Divac had a very long and successful career, while the supermely talented Petrovic had his highly promising career and life cut short when he was killed in an auto accident in 1993. The film, done with oversight by the NBA, has incurred criticism for its omissions and inaccuracies, but the basics of the story are still very moving, and they show how sports can reflect, connect, or divide the societies and cultures that value them.

Lowlight

The House of Steinbrenner. This whole thing was essentially a puff piece love letter to the New York Yankees. I love baseball and its history, but all but the most devout Yankees fans are likely to find this glossy piece a bit nauseating. You might as well just buy a "History of the Bronx Bombers" DVD set and not bother with this one.

ESPN Presents (Aired from 2011 to 2012)
The film Renee, about a transgender woman who fought for
the right to play on the women's tennis tour, is one of the most
fascinating of the "Presents" series.

These were thirteen other documentaries that were made but not included in Volume I of the series. I've seen all except the two films
Goose and Right to Play. Curiously, nearly every one of the eleven that I've seen is excellent, leading me to wonder why they weren't included in the original volume over weaker entries. The only three that were not outstanding were Charismatic, The Dotted Line, and Roll Tide/War Eagle. None of these was a "bad" film; they just suffer from being in the same group as so many other great films.

Volume II (Aired 2012 to June 2015)

Highlights

Survive and Advance. It mostly follows the North Carolina State basketball team's improbable and amazing run towards the National Championship in 1983. This story is fascinating from a sports angle, but what makes the documentary is how it also tells the story of the team's larger-than-life coach, Jim Valvano. Valvano was a boisterous, funny, endlessly energetic man who practically willed his team to win through positive visualization and faith, rather than the dogged dictatorial style of coaching often associated with high-level athletics. Valvano's eventual losing battle against cancer puts a sad but inspiring note into this tale. I would challenge anyone to watch this whole documentary and not get choked up at some point.

Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau. As much an anthrolological documentary as a biographical account, this tells the story of Eddie Aikau, the first native Hawaiian surfer to compete on the world stage in the sport that his ancestors had invented. I had never heard of Aikau before this documentary, but I was enthralled by what kind of person he was and just what he meant to his native Hawaii.

If, like most of America, you had written off Maurice
Clarette (left) as an idiotic thug, then the film
Youngstown
Boys may very well change your opinion.
Youngstown Boys. The tale of two guys from Youngstown. Ohio - running back Maurice Clarette and head coach Jim Tressel - who resurrected the Ohio State football program in the early 2000s, only to have it come crashing down. Like most people, I had last heard of Clarette being put in jail after driving drunk in a car filled with firearms. This documentary paints a fuller, updated picture that I found highly moving. It reminded me not to simply judge a celebrity by the headlines his actions may inspire.

Lowlights

There's No Place Like Home. To date, this is the only 30 for 30 film that I stopped watching before its end. It traces the efforts of a University of Kansas alumnus and basketball fan to raise enough money to allow UK to purchase basketball inventor James Naismith's original rules for the game, written on the original piece of paper. The fan in question has some rather serious priority issues, which are disturbing enough, but once I saw the disingenuous tactic he started to use to hit up wealthy alumni for money, I couldn't stomach the film any more. A hardcore Jayhawk might love the show; the rest of us are likely to find it dull at best and highly annoying at worst. I was frankly surprised that the people in charge of the 30 for 30 series gave this one the thumbs up.

The Day the Series Stopped. This one details the day in 1989 when, right in the middle of game 3 of the World Series of baseball between the Oakland Athletics and San Fransisco Giants, a massive earthquake struck the Bay Area. The film isn't really a terrible one, but it is only loosely a "sports" documentary. It rightfully focuses more on the actual victims of the disaster, but this makes it seem far more appropriate for the History or Discovery Channel, rather than in the middle of an ESPN sports documentary series. This, coupled with some odd decisions in terms of visuals and editing, made this 50-minute film a bit of a chore at times.

ESPN has begun airing its third season of "30 for 30." I'm sure I'll work my way through those, as well, and will give a run-down once they've all been aired over the next few years.