The Top 30 Sports Documentaries of All Time: Part 1 – #30 – #21

The rise of affordable equipment and increased distribution channels in the past 15-odd years has led to a surfeit of documentary production, especially in the lucrative realm of sports.  The 30 films on this list come from film and TV, from 1938 to 2014, as short as 11 minutes and as long as 18 ½ hours.  One was co-directed by a 2-time NBA MVP and one was exec produced by Kelly Ripa (?!?).  So let’s start with #30 through #21.

One Caveat:  Pumping Iron isn’t anywhere on the list.  Look, I get it, it’s an important film in the sports doc pantheon, and the young pot-smoking tang-hound Schwarzenegger is a hoot, but the thing’s largely fake.  Several accounts by the subjects and filmmakers attest to inventing situations and scenarios for entertainment’s sake.  So it’s fundamentally fake.  So it’s not on the list.


The Gist: Two pre-teen rhythmic gymnasts hope to perform for Kim Jong-Il at the Arirang Mass Games.

Filmmaker Daniel Gordon was afforded shocking entrée into the fascinating yet petrifying climate of North Korea (and this was pre-Rodman North Korea).  While the story remains fixed on two girls desperate to prove their skill and devotion to their Dear Leader, the real starpower comes from the ideological wasteland of the country itself.  The film plies a fine balance between the meticulous precision of each girl’s performance and the utter submersion of that performance into the austere, garish, terrifying and eye-melting spectacle of the Arirang Mass Games – itself a gaudy personification of North Korea’s philosophy.  It’s a discomfiting and surprising experience to hear the girls in their moments of childlike frankness juxtaposed with the enforced and manufactured falseness that the state allowed Gordon to shoot.  It’s a story of desperate, naïve desire to excel in a place where that excellence must disappear into a beaming throng of delusion.


The Gist: The vestiges of prejudice against Native Americans and their effects on a talented, conflicted basketball family.

In visiting and revisiting the library of sports docs, a dispiriting realization has occurred to me: there are precious few great sports docs about women.  Off the Rez is a welcome exception.  In telling its story of a family of basketball talents on Oregon’s Umatilla Indian Reservation, it reveals not only the mother and daughters’ commitment and talent, but the inexpressible pull that the reservation still has on them.  Leaving the rez means leaving its isolation, but also its community and heritage.  It means potential education and stardom, but also potential discrimination, the same discrimination that the mother Ceci maintains kept her from being recruited by colleges when she was young.  It’s astounding to watch daughter Shoni become the last top player in the country to commit to a university, still tethered to the rez, despite its appalling legacy.  And this due not just to its culture and its deep roots, but mainly to this remarkable family.


The Gist: Three decadent years in the first true attempt to bring soccer into the hearts and minds of America.

One of the hallmarks of this giddy, funk-filled carnival of a film is how much it seems to be fine with the relative failure of the great Cosmos experiment to bring soccer to a wide American audience.  It’s almost gleefully unpretentious, reveling in the notion that a vast media empire during the heady, coked-up 70’s wanted a slice of the global soccer economy and threw The American Dream (along with millions of dollars) at global superstars like Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer and that there’s a betting chance that you don’t know who 67% of those guys are.  The film itself is a perfect distillation of its time; the ridiculous (groundskeepers spray paint the patchy Randalls Island pitch green) chases the ridiculous (to snare Pelé away from Brazil, the club owner dispatches Henry Kissinger to broker the deal).  Crowder and Dower’s disco aesthetic fits the Cosmos’ brief, burn-out run perfectly: a flashy, gawdy half-memory that briefly cuts through the soccer-averse American hangover.


The Gist: Buffalo Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk struggles through the aftermath of one of the most ghastly sports injuries of all time.

30 for 30 has released some commendable short films, and these brutal 11 minutes could’ve been unbearably ghoulish, even tasteless.  But there’s a noteworthy restraint and respect that Cantor holds for his fascinating subject, along with the elegant shadows of the blustery frontier landscape where Malarchuk seems to feel most at home.  Malarchuk was once an all-star, but is remembered today for almost bleeding out on live TV after taking a hockey skate to his jugular vein.  The Malarchuk in this film is a proud but haunted man, barely able to show his face to the camera as he remembers the pudgy hands of the equipment manager who saved his life, or the OCD that propelled his work ethic before the accident – and nearly destroyed him after it.  If you think the horror on the ice was bad, wait until you see what he did to himself in front of his wife on his own back porch. 


The Gist: The rise and fall of Tonya Harding.

While it’s safe to say that very few people like Tonya Harding these days, Burstein’s film somehow pulls off a superb double act.  It earns a begrudging sympathy for a potentially great athlete undone by circumstance and repeating histories of abusive relationships and bad choices, while simultaneously allowing Harding the time to remind us why that sympathy is in small supply.  It also questions our expectations of the women we want to compete in our most popular winter sport.  Countless sports docs hinge on the idea that sports can be a ticket out of the dross and struggle of an underprivileged upbringing.  The fact that Harding found that ticket and then had it taken away from her for life gives the film a subtle disconnect that’s both easy to understand and difficult to shake.  The film is certainly no apologia for what Harding did or didn’t do (this never gets answered of course), and her animosity toward Kerrigan is barely managed, but it’s a beguilingly unnerving character study of both a flawed talent and the world that favored her flaws more than her talent.


The Gist: The difficult truth that football is permanently impairing and even killing its players, and the lengths the NFL will go to deny it.

29 of these 30 films have an inescapably optimistic relationship with sports; this is the one that doesn’t.  It’s as much a powerful indictment as it is a wistful elegy; the story of a formidably insatiable multi-headed sports/media conglomerate and a Hall of Fame center who died at 50 with his scalp fused to his skull.  That man was Mike Webster, whose autopsy began the scientific examination into the direct relationship between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  Through the journalistic bona fides of brothers Steve Fainaru & Mark Fainaru-Wada, we discover despairing evidence that the NFL deliberately denied, obfuscated and discredited doctors, scientists and its own former players while devising litigious exit strategies.  This film is also (in)famously informed by the fact that ESPN pulling out of the production of it, ostensibly because they lacked editorial control, but realistically because it was afraid of risking the hundreds of millions it could stand to lose by criticizing the NFL’s gerrymandering tactics.


The Gist: Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes prepare for their seminal 1980 heavyweight bout.

We want two Muhammad Ali’s.  The unassailable raconteur of the Vietnam era that galvanized a global audience – and the contemporary quivering shadow that shades our cautionary nostalgia for that same era.  We don’t want the muddled second act, where Ali’s inevitable decline begins.  This is the film we don’t want.   The brash caprice of the Ali of a decade prior is muted here; there’s a slurred dimness, a sorrowful foreshadowing of the afflicted man he would become.  The incomparable camerawork of Albert Maysles (unseen for nearly 30 years) captures the Pennsylvania hunting lodge bungalows where Ali spars as something of an oracle for aspiring fighters, but in reality it’s almost a Catskills second stage where Ali’s better gifts are for the magic tricks he awes local children with.  It’s also the story of the unfortunate Holmes, who quickly realizes that he’s about to administer his idol’s most humiliating defeat, is powerless to stop it, and knows that beating Ali will forever brand him a villain.  It’s a placid trauma of a film, where both fighters step into the ring knowing that even if they win, they’re going to lose.


The Gist: Ben Wilson, an uncommonly gifted basketball player, and his tragic death the day before his final high-school season.

Of the common denominators of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, the most recognizable, and most potentially shopworn, is that of the young mercurial talent whose dreams of sports immortality go unfulfilled, either through rotten luck, injury, personal demons, drugs or violence (or some combination of them all).  Benji traffics in all of this, but shouldn’t be faulted for doing so because Coodie and Chike construct such a compelling argument for not only Watson’s talent as a player, but also for the impact he had – in just three teenage years – on the unforgiving landscape of Chicago basketball.  What sets it apart is the filmmakers’ bold choice to suggest that Watson’s death – a lamentable statistic of gunshot deaths in Chicago in the 80’s – wasn’t senseless or unavoidable, and that Watson was no angelic martyr.  In an almost unthinkable act of journalistic bravery, the filmmakers give us the point of view from the man at the grip of the gun, who looks back with rueful clarity on the day he gunned Benji down.  Add to this the condemnation of Chicago’s medical emergency policies and the reaction of Benji’s extraordinary mother, and the consequences of that sidewalk shooting become unbearably searing.  If you aren’t emotionally gutted by the scenes of the school assembly the day after the murder, then you’re dead inside.  You just are.


The Gist: A lamentably unsuccessful football team tries to right its woes, both on and off the field.

The Hardscrabble Team from the Wrong Side of the Tracks.  Bucking Insurmountable Odds.  Under the Fair-But-Firm Tutelage of an Inspirational Coach.  Probably the hoariest tropes in sports cinema.  And yet here they are, working despite themselves.  The Blind Side without the studio gloss.  What really makes this surprise Oscar winner succeed is the exceptional access the filmmakers have to its remarkable coach Bill Courtney.  Seemingly unassuming, struggling in his own way with the life he’s chosen, he’s an unflagging everyman who volunteers everything within him to Manassas High School because he – as a child of an absent father – desperately wants to improve the lot of the rudderless kids on his team.  He sees that the boilerplate motivational homilies can be appended; that football doesn’t build character, it reveals character.  No victory on the field is as meaningful as the tear-jerking scene where he pulls a player out of practice to tell him that his life is about to change, that it’s because of that character, and that he possessed it before he ever put on a football uniform.


The Gist: Vlade Divac remembers the success and friendship he shared with Dražen Petrovic before they found themselves on different sides of civil war.

This film is a constant escalating complexity of beginnings and endings.  It begins as the youthful reverie of the Serbian Divac and the Croatian Petrovic becoming teammates as young men.  Then it’s the story of the surprising World Championship ascendancy of Yugoslavian basketball.  Then the nascent beginning of the NBA’s recruitment of European players and their struggle to assimilate into American culture.  Then the untold misery of the Balkan conflict.  Before Yugoslavia could establish a global basketball dynasty, the country was ripped apart by civil war.  Before Divac and Petrovic could bridge their cultural divide, Petrovic died in his sleep in a car crash on the Autobahn.  It was Petrovic – by many accounts the finest basketball European basketball player of all time – who opened up the NBA to Europeans.  But few remember his name today.  It hurts, this film.  As Divac wanders the snowy, mottled grays of Zagreb under the vilifying gaze of the local Croats, you sense his profound regret that something as simple as basketball once united a country, and that the unity is gone forever, buried with Dražen Petrovic and the victims of the Yugoslav wars.

That’s it for the first 10 films; stay tuned for #20-11.

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