Review: 30 For 30 #1-5

Having had it in mind for a while, I finally started watching ESPN’s critically acclaimed and award winning sports documentary series 30 For 30. For the uninitiated, this is a series of 30 documentaries (though it has now gone on as far as 50 entries by now) that each focus on some aspect of sport or a sporting personality. Rather than review each individually, which would take time and effort I don’t have, I thought that, as I watch them, I could review them in batches of five.

Before I actually get started though, I will say that 30 For 30 is limited enough in its scope. Of the 51 documentaries that have aired or are being aired soon, well over half – 29 in total – focus on one of three sports (or a personality involved with those sports): American Football, Basketball and Baseball. Big sports, within America and in the world at large, have had to make do with one entry, sports like association football, horse racing, tennis, Golf. Even Ice Hockey, traditionally one of the “big four” sports in America, has had only two documentaries dedicated to it. That’s probably something it would be good to address, since the world of sports has such a stunning variety of things to talk about. Anyway.

King’s Ransom – Peter Berg

A discussion of “The Trade”, of Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky’s move from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. Like any good portrayal of such a huge sporting move, this one focuses on Gretzky himself for the most part, but then shoves in a general history of the Oilers and the passion for ice hockey that Edmonton enjoys.

That basically means that the documentary is too long, as it goes off topic regularly in a bid to make the expected 50 minute running time. The opening shots of Gretzky walking around the hockey stadium are needlessly over the top in terms of staged visuals, as are the dramatic shots of headless hockey players skating alone on the ice with changing jerseys between the Oilers and Kings.

The actual content is quite good though. There’s some interesting stuff from the Oilers owner justifying his decision, and with Gretzky, struggling to be casual about the whole affair, and never quite making clear just why he went. The depiction of fan anger over the move, right down to stupid threats aimed at Gretzky’s wife, really does illustrate very well the “passion” of fans, and makes clear just how much of an impact “The Great One” had on the sport.

The Band That Wouldn’t Die – Barry Levinson

A portrayal of the Baltimore Colts marching band, who continued to play after the team moved to Indianapolis. This is a very personal, very emotional story, one that tells an effective tale about the nature of fandom, commitment and hope within sports. The activities of the Baltimore Colts band is contrasted well with the very cynical business practise of the teams owner. The band members tell their tale in a very personable setting, and there’s a really good mix of contemporary footage and modern interviews.

This one really sets out the constant refrain of sports as a religion, of the unwavering followers being likened to church-goers. I’m not sure it ever really answers the question “Why?” that well, but it does outline the special nature of the relationship between the Colts, their band and the fans.

It does overstate the case though. The indication is that Baltimore only got a new team because of the drive and commitment of the Band members, which does not seem to be true, and the implication that a rousing rendition of their fight song was the key thing to get the state legislature on their side smacks of exaggeration. That political side of things is actually a very compelling part of the whole subject, but I think it got kind of ruined by this overly-emotional finale. The production team and subjects also don’t really do enough to acknowledge that Baltimore essentially benefitted at the expense of another city, much like what happened to them at the start.

Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? – Mike Tollin

I really liked this one, the story of the ill-fated United States Football League. Tollin is a good director and a very engaging narrator, even if this documentary is essentially a 50 minute glorification of the failed gridiron football league (that he was involved in, which skews his perspective, naturally). Its cut and presented in a very entertaining way, flipping between football highlights and off the field issues seamlessly, and manages to make a number of interesting personalities the focal points.

None more than Donald Trump of course, who is cast as the villain of the piece. He’s stiff enough in his very limited present day interview, and Tollin does do a very definite hatchet job on the former team owner, laying much of the leagues problems at his feet. I’m not sure how fair that is, but it is certainly easy to dislike Trump, especially when compared to some of the more positively portrayed owners.

The USFL looks like it was a fun experiment, and you won’t miss that point, because every interviewee uses the word “fun” as a description at some point. They are very much at pains to make the USFL out to be an amazing idea, which was ruined by the actions of a few. Really though, they seem to only present this conclusion on the basis that touchdown celebrations were allowed and encouraged. I’m not sure that’s a very worthwhile assessment, but I still enjoyed this documentary regardless, even if it didn’t really answer the titular question.

Muhammad and Larry – Albert Maysles

This is a brilliant one, a re-visiting of the infamous 1980 Holmes/Ali fight, even if it is the very definition of “hard to watch”. Seeing a legend liked Ali go into a fight so obviously unfit, so obviously unprepared, is heartbreaking. The amount of delusion, dangerous in its extent, is so very obvious here. No narration is really required here, just the sight of an exhausted Ali after training, pretending that he still has what it takes.

This is a shocking indictment of a sport where the personal welfare of the participants takes a firm backseat to the financial gain of others. The evidence piles up and up that Ali should not have been anywhere near a boxing ring at the time, and that concerns about his well-being were openly ignored. His disgusted fight doctor, saying that those involved should be arrested, is one of the stand-out participants.

There’s a great use of contemporary footage to show off Ali as his charismatic self, before the painful sight of him getting pummelled by Holmes in such a comprehensive fashion. Holmes’ contributions were interesting, as he struggled to hide, perhaps, some bitterness that his reputation today is not near that of Ali’s.

Without Bias – Kirk Frasier

A look at the career and sudden death of Len Bias. I was intrigued by this one, even if it has its faults. No narration was an interesting choice, but one that works I think. It makes it a bit more immersive I suppose, hearing the entire thing through the voices of those involved. It’s a tragic story, and we’re taken through the events step-by-step. Some really good interviews here, from a wide spectrum of people.

It’s way too long though. This is a torturously extended look at a the downfall of one of basketball’s most promising young stars, especially the early sections focusing on Bias’ high school and college success. I think the main focus of the documentary should have been his death and the aftermath, with everything before being of secondary importance, reduced to a simple summation. I think the problem there is that ESPN believes these documentaries must contain endless reams of slow motion highlights to keep the audience’s attention.

After all, it was his death that made him such an important figure to the sport at large, and to the illegal drugs issue. Without Bias doesn’t really offer anything approaching a definitive conclusion on those issues, beyond some brief thoughts on the pressures college stars can be put under, and seems too sympathetic to its subject matter to be truly great.

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