I try not to make this about me, but here’s the thing you have to understand about my response to 30 for 30: I am not a sports guy. Not by the longest shot, not even a little. This is not meant as a judgment of those who are; I know plenty of them, and they’re very nice people. But there are few things on this earth less intrinsically interesting to me than watching a sporting event, either live or on television—I can’t help it, it’s just how I’m wired. On top of that, it’s a time management thing; the notion of wiling away three hours of television time watching a football game while there are still Robert Altman films I haven’t seen is, frankly, unacceptable.
And yet—here’s the odd thing—I love sports movies. Raging Bull, Rocky, Hoosiers, Any Given Sunday, Field of Dreams, The Hustler, Breaking Away, The Color of Money; if I flip past any one of them, I’m staying. Same goes for sports documentaries—Hoop Dreams, of course, and When We Were Kings, and Unforgivable Blackness, and Murderball, and HBO’s recent Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals were all riveting, brilliant films. Why this broad taste disparity? It’s probably a matter of patience; the struggles, clashes, and triumphs of sports are inherently dramatic (and, consequently, inherently cinematic), but boy do you have to wait through a lot of dull stuff to get to them. Sports movies can focus and foreground that drama, whether by inventing it (in fiction) or collapsing and telescoping it (in documentary).
That process has never been so regularly and skillfully executed as on 30 for 30, ESPN Films’ tremendous series of documentaries, which aired between October 2009 and now (the final film debuts on December 11th). The first 15 films, which aired on the ESPN networks and were available as on-demand discs from Amazon, have been assembled on six discs and packaged into the 30 for 30 Gift Set Collection, Volume 1—presumably with an eye on the holiday market. Good for them; it’s a perfect gift for both sports fans and cinephiles.
The project was initiated by ESPN.com columnist Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons as an 30th anniversary project for the network, focusing on stories from the “ESPN era.” Thirty filmmakers (from both the fiction and non-fiction disciplines) were asked to craft documentaries about sports stories that they either had a personal interest in, or that they felt had been underreported or forgotten. The personnel assembled included legendary documentarians (Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Steve James), up-and-comers (Brett Morgen, Kirk Fraser) well-known narrative filmmakers (Barry Levinson, John Singleton, Ron Shelton), and name actors-turned-directors (Ice Cube, Peter Berg).
With a couple of minor exceptions, the overall quality of the series is astonishing. There is no set template that must be adhered to; some use voice-over narration, and most use a fairly standard documentary format (a mixture of vintage clips and new interviews with the participants), but some vary from even that, crafting their tales with animation, reenactments, and other devices. There were no “rules” to follow, and the filmmakers reportedly had creative control over their projects. The only requirement, it would seem, was to maintain a standard of excellence. Mission accomplished.
Let it be noted, as a quickly-dispensed aside, that there are a couple of weak installments. Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen’s Silly Little Game, about the origins of fantasy football, is absolutely skippable, an insufferably cutesy affair that is altogether too impressed by its own attempts at cleverness. It is the one and only film that would seem only of interest to those obsessed with the topic; there are no stakes or points of entry for anyone else. Clifford Bestal’s The 16th Man is well-executed and moving, but covers much of the same ground as its docudrama companion Invictus, and those who have seen the latter film might resist the repetition. And though Peter Berg’s Kings Ransom and Ice Cube’s Straight Outta L.A. have some terrific moments (the notion of paralleling the rise of the Raiders with Cube’s own story of N.W.A. and the gangsta rap movement that embraced them is compelling, if slightly underdeveloped), both are somewhat hampered by their actor/directors’ insistence on excessive camera time. (Berg puts in far too much footage of his golf-course interview with the film’s ostensible subject, Wayne Gretsky.)
So those are the grievances; within the grand scheme of the series and its considerable accomplishments, they are the very definition of minor. The films in the series take on sports from several angles; the films are about sports, but they’re also about fandom, the media, celebrity, race, spirituality. Two of the most heartbreaking films touch on issues of mortality and responsibility, telling similar sad stories with very different approaches. Kirk Fraser’s Without Bias goes back to 1986, when college basketball wunderkind Len Bias died of a heart attack two days after Boston made him their first-round draft pick. The heart attack was brought on by cocaine, and his death shined a light on the casual drug use that was typical of the era. Fraser relies heavily on the teary memories of the athlete’s family and friends; it’s a tough film to watch, but a powerful one. Guru of Go, directed by Bill Couturié (Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam), takes a look at the Loyola-Marymount University’s basketball team, and their famous aggressive court style, known as “The System.” Developed by coach Paul Westhead, it was a non-stop, run-and-gun, fast-break method of winning games by wearing out their opponents, but it may have led to the on-court death of star player Hank Gathers. That footage, of the nation’s leading scorer just crumpling to the floor, is terrifying—it knocks the wind right out of you. But the story of how the team handled Hank’s death, and their play in the subsequent NCAA tourney, is what great sports stories are all about.
True fandom is the subject of Barry Levinson’s wonderful The Band That Wouldn’t Die, the charming story of how the Baltimore Colts marching band refused to disband, even after their team snuck out of town (basically under cover of night) and relocated to Indianapolis, and how that band kept on playing until they had a franchise to support. And fandom is, to a great degree, the focus of Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks—how the slings and arrows of the Knicks fans (specifically courtsider Spike Lee) prompted a personal and heated rivalry between New York and Miller, the Indiana Pacers’ notorious “Knick-Killer” who seemed to thrive off of their venom. Though Winning Time is one of the longer installments, director Dan Klores crafts the film tightly, and with great humor and affection.
The set’s longest film is Billy Corben’s The U, which covers the multi-year rise (and eventual fall) of the University of Miami’s football program—a home for great successes, famous alumni, and considerable controversy. Corben’s film isn’t just set in Miami—it feels like Miami, all glitz and neon and bass-heavy music. But it’s not all style; he constructs the tale like a piece of investigative journalism, following leads and asking questions, turning over the rocks to see what crawls out from underneath. It’s a jazzy, snappy, fun picture.
Some of the films take on the complex personalities of the game—who they are, and what they represent (whether they choose to or not). Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni’s Run Ricky Run examines the strange journey of running back Ricky Williams, an uncommonly quiet and thoughtful athlete who struggled with drugs and social anxiety disorder; granted extraordinary access to the subject, the resulting film is low-key and fascinating. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson is Hoop Dreams co-director Steve James’s account of the 1993 bowling alley brawl that led to Iverson, then a 17-year-old high school basketball sensation, and three friends being tried for “maiming by mob.” The trial became a flashpoint for tense race relations (a kind of pre-O.J. trial), and the first of many “trials” for Iverson. James returns to his hometown of Hampton, Virginia, where the whole affair occurred; the film is somehow personal yet objective, felt but fair.
The century’s most compelling sports figure is the subject of one of the best film of the set. Muhammad and Larry is co-directed by the great Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) and Bradley Kaplan, profiling Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes’s 1980 heavyweight title bout. The film masterfully interweaves a treasure trove of previously unseen footage shot during the training period with recent, poignant interviews. The tragedy of the fight, which was Ali’s second-to-last (and a bad defeat), is that we now see how far gone he was, how we clearly should not have been fighting any more, and how continuing to subject himself to this kind of punishment contributed to his Parkinson’s Disease.
The film is beautifully made—witness the efficiency with which they acknowledge Ali’s history, merely with an anecdote accompanied by a flurry of iconic images. Maysles’s distinctive, settled-in camerawork captures “the champ” at his most affable: entertaining kids with his magic tricks, signing autographs, taking pictures, cutting up for camera crews (of his new mustache, he quips: “You can call me ‘Dark Gable’ now!”). But you can hear his voice slowing, starting to slur; you can see him struggling at the speed bag. You want to stop him, but you can’t. No one could. Ali has been the subject of countless documentaries, but he was such a rich and fascinating personality that there are still things to discover about him here, like the way he breaks the monotony of a car ride by tickling an underling, or the exchange he shares with the camera immediately after. He asks the cameraman (presumably Maysles) what Holmes has said about him. “He likes you,” is the response. A smile flutters across the corners of his mouth. “I like him,” he admits quietly. It’s an extraordinary moment.
The sports media is also a favorite focus in the series. Mike Tollin’s Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? is an intriguing look at a long-forgotten enterprise, an insider’s view of the short-lived spring football league that came and went in the mid-1980s. Filled with fun footage, great stories, and vintage sportscasts, Tollin’s film is entertaining and energetic, even if his narration is a bit too self-conscious and self-congratulatory (“Our award-winning highlight show…”). And it’s got a magnificent villain: the one and only Donald Trump, who bought into the league in its second season and subsequently became the most probable answer to the film’s titular question. Trump is at his most dickish in his new interview for the film; this is a blowhard of the highest order. Equally absorbing is Fritz Mitchell’s The Legend of Jimmy the Greek, a sharp profile of the bookie-turned-sports commentator, whose ill-advised off-the-cuff comments on race and sports knocked him right off the air (and put him on the kind of meetings-and-apology tour that we still see when a public figure treads into those waters).
But the news media is, for lack of a better term, the star of the best film in the series, Brett Morgen’s June 17th, 1994. That date was one on which several very different sports stories collided: Arnold Palmer played his final U.S. Open competition, opening ceremonies for the World Cup were held in Chicago, the New York Rangers celebrated their Stanley Cup trophy with a ticker-tape parade, and the Knicks and Rockets faced off in game five of the NBA finals. Oh, and onetime football superstar O.J. Simpson, wanted for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and friend Ron Goldman, led the LAPD and a battery of news choppers on a bizarre low-speed highway chase, with a gun to his head and his friend A.C. Cowlings at the wheel.
The inventive filmmaker (he helmed the Robert Evans bio-doc The Kid Stays in the Picture) dispenses, almost entirely, with documentary tradition here: there are no talking head interviews, no narration, no sense of history. It is comprised entirely of clips, taken from the news reports of that day, on and off the air. Those clips are thrown at the viewer in a flurry of relentless, hyper-caffeinated editing, pushed to its limit by the frenetic, fabulous score. (Andy Grieve is the editor; Fletcher Beasley and Jeff Dana are the composers.) In its reliance on image and montage, it is something akin to pure cinema; as you’re watching, you’re stunned not only by the fact that they’re doing it, but that they’re doing it so well. We think of this story as just a fact, a thing that happened, but Morgan steps back and—critically—plays it in real time, in the present tense. (The brilliant History Channel documentary JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America pulled a similar strategy recently, to equally thrilling effect.) We experience the shock and confusion of the anchors on the air, and remember feeling the same way at the strangeness, the surreality of it all; we see tape rolled off-air, like studio chatter on bootleg records, and get an even keener sense of the chaos (Bob Costas: “Is Brokaw gonna send it to me?”). But Morgen’s masterstroke is his decision to not just focus on O.J.; in the breadth of that day’s stories, he somehow encompasses the joy, the agony, the thrill, and the emotion of sport. In some way, the entire series covers that same range of rich, powerful feeling.
There’s not much to add; I feel as though I’ve worn out my capacity for hyperbole in this review. 30 for 30 was an ambitious project, and could have gone wrong in countless ways. But it didn’t. These films are brilliant—well-made, intelligent, entertaining, suspenseful—and stimulating even for those of us who’d never watched ESPN before they aired. It’s a dazzling set. Bring on volume two.
The "30 for 30 Gift Set Collection, Volume 1" hits DVD on Tuesday, December 7th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.