Oh what fun this wall-to-wall deluge of Olympics coverage has been. For anyone who shares with me a love of sport, its metaphors, the heartbreak, the simple pleasure of routing for funny-named nations (go _ _ _ _ _ _ -stan!), and a newfound fascination with water polo, then I hope you have enjoyed the past week as much as I have.
It all started off with an inspired-and-sweet opening ceremony dreamed up by one my favorite film directors, Danny Boyle, who managed to put the resistance in piece-de-resistance. And I’ve especially appreciated the surreal experience of watching South Africa’s Carl Pistorius, the double amputee runner who has challenged our notions of human ability, technology, and the world we live currently live in.
It all brings to mind the best documentaries about sports. ESPN has nearly cornered the market with its 30 for 30 series, which is getting a second season, starting in October. The first episode should be interesting; Broke, directed by Billy Corben, is about rich athletes who have lost their fortunes. The next one should really grab Olympics fans: 9.79*. It’s about Ben Johnson’s 1988 Olympic 100-meter run, and his fall from grace. Not surprisingly, Sports Illustrated saw a good thing, and will be producing its own sports-doc series. Bring it on.
But as good as the ESPN docs have been, there are five better. Here are my five favorite sports docs (I’m not including the great leisure sports docs, like Dogtown, Z-Boys and the great surfing ones, because they feel like different animals to me).
I’ve written about this stirring film here before, about a 1968 football game between the two Ivy League schools. I said, “it’s about memory and loss and the comradeship between athletes, and also very much about that critical era in our history,” and it shows that “a game can sometimes be more than just a game.” I still believe this is all true, but what I remember most about the film is how much I loved the play-by-play of a thrilling game.
There’s something both under and overwhelming about this 2010 documentary about Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian race car driver who pushed the sport to its limits and paid the ultimate cost. Maybe that’s because there was too much hype. This film had a lot of vocal proponents, and I certainly found myself more moved by car racing than I ever have been. But it’s the charm of Senna, and the drama of his seemingly unalterable fate, that makes this a great film.
This 2005 film about quadrapalegic athletes who play wheelchair rugby does what the best documentaries do: introduces us to a foreign world and makes it familiar through a strong narrative arc and compelling characters. These guys aren’t begging for our sympathy; they’re just making the best of a bad situation. And if we can cheer them on because they’re kick-ass, competitive athletes, not because they’re differently abled, then the film has done its job. (And, yes, this movie made me cry.)
When We Were Kings
As profound and glorious as its title, this 1996 Oscar winner tells the story of the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. With awesome archival footage interspersed with all-star interviews with the likes of Spike Lee, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. The film has a flawless pace, and we’re left with the feeling that this boxing match was a vital part of American history.
Call me predictable for picking this film about Chicago’s inner city youth looking for a way out of the ghetto though basketball, but I suggest you watch it again. It really holds up. This is the film that helped launch a thousand docs by telling the story of disadvantaged people by framing their tale around something smaller, and seemingly more simple (basketball), which could allow audiences to invest in them in way that was deeply empathetic without being paternalistic.
It’s worth noting that last December, I posted a list of documentaries I was most looking forward to, and that included a wish that someone get started on a film about Penn State, Joe Paterno and Jeff Sandusky. I’m happy to report that Amir Bar-Lev has picked up the torch, as it were, and he’s directing a film under the producing stewardship of John Battsek. This will be one to watch for. (It’s currently called Happy Valley, but I hope they’ll change the title.)