Top 30 Sports Documentaries of All Time, Part 2: #20 – #11
Read Part 1 here.
The Gist: An impressionistic celebration of the athletes of the 1964 Summer Olympics.
Japan gave Kon Ichikawa 150 cameras to record the 1964 Games in Tokyo. He gave Japan this film. Japan didn’t like it. It’s not an analgesic inventory of who won and who didn’t. It’s an excavation of the limits of the human body at the absolute tipping point of its capabilities. Japan wanted a glorious discourse on Japan’s post-war reawakening; instead, Ichikawa opens the film with images of the wrecking ball and Hiroshima. His humanistic view is that the Olympics are an impossible gathering of world-class athletes, and most of them lose. And their effort is more worthy of respect than a litany the few who won. A long-forgotten runner from Chad dropped into Tokyo like the man who fell to Earth is just as important as Joe Frazier. The exhausted throng at the back of the marathon get their due as much as the legendary winner Abebe Bikila. Immaculately shot and edited, it’s a bracing counter-narrative to the Sochi Olympics coverage, which went to execrable and floundering lengths to invent peripheral drama amid the dearth of celebrity-ready medalists.
The Gist: A day in the life of a tattered gym in Austin, Texas.
The old man’s still got it. Frederick Wiseman, still one of the roaring lions of cinema verité, was 80 when he made this film with no real story to speak of. It’s an evocation of a place, a subtle act of portraiture of the sounds and rhythms of a down-at-heel warehouse oasis for boxers of different means, ages and races, abilities and goals. Where people pay $50 a month to train in the art of violence while chatting in casual disbelief about the Virginia Tech shooting. Men, women and children, cramped together amid the battered uppercut bags swaddled in duct tape and the persistent drill bell, create a hypnotic, almost dancelike ritual of speed bags and medicine balls. And then almost imperceptibly, the ritual stops and the film devolves into a pitiless spar where the fighters vainly try to bend their training to the brutal pitch of the fight.
The Gist: Two surfers follow the summer around the world searching for the perfect wave.
I’ll be the first to admit it: The Endless Summer isn’t great cinema. So why is this innocuous lark on the list? First of all, the film opened up far-flung breaks in West Africa, Southern Asia and the South Pacific to surfers around the world. But the real reason is this: documentaries in the mid-20th century were usually a stiff, starchy, antiseptic affair, favoring bloodless academia over personality and humor. Brown was one of the first to marry his cinematic style to his subject, to take the goofy wanderlust of these two surfers and make his film accordingly. The narration is slightly louche and brimming with groaning puns and anodyne surf lingo, the structure allows for aimless detours with rickshaws, snake handlers and other local color, and yet despite the limitations of the shoot itself, Brown’s 16mm camera captures these men in some of the most transcendent surfing footage imaginable. It’s a film as completely free of pretension as the sport it celebrates, and its influence is felt in all the sports docs that followed it.
The Gist: The life of the mind of a Swiss ski jumping champion.
It may have been here that Herzog first became the fabled auteur he is today. His portrait of Walter Steiner makes no mention of his Olympic medal or his training regimen. Herzog is more concerned with a philosophical question: why does this reluctant champion and carpenter want to fly? At a world cup event in Yugoslavia, Steiner hesitantly sets world records on a hill too short to contain his epic jumps, where 10 meters separates that world record from almost certain death. The soul of the film, along with the unspeakably beautiful slow-motion footage of Steiner in flight, is the story Steiner tells about what he had to do as a child when his pet raven couldn’t fly anymore. It’s a fine metaphor for the crowds on the hill (and possibly us as viewers) who want one of two things from Steiner: either a perfect flight or a devastating crash. In that context, it’s easy to understand him when he says he’d happiest if he were the last man on earth.
The Gist: Terry Fox tries to run across Canada to raise awareness of the cancer that took his leg.
There are certain acts of human endurance, sheer individual will and borderline madness that simply beggar belief. Terry Fox’s 1980 Marathon of Hope may exceed them all. After bone cancer took his right leg, this 22-year old ran over 3,000 miles on a clumsy prosthetic in a powerfully inconceivable act of courage and defiance in the face of his arbitrary impairment. Holland and Nash (yup, that Steve Nash) need no stylistic flourishes to tell this remarkable story; the images of Fox awkwardly hobbling down barren Canadian highways are impossibly rich. Each stroppy hitch-step looks unbearable, making his Sisyphean task all the more exultant as the miles fall behind him. Yet the filmmakers don’t beatify him. There’s an understandable stubbornness, a youthful arrogance to him, angry at the initial lack of press, and then burdened by it when it eventually envelopes him. Fox is nearly a saint in Canada. The final poignancy of the film is that he’s largely unknown to the rest of us.
The Gist: The ascendancy of Brazilian phenom Ayrton Senna collides with the untested rise of Formula 1 racing technology.
You know he’s gonna die. Kapadia makes no effort at false suspense in telling the story of Senna’s relentless passion, reckless style and swift dominance of F1 racing 25 years ago. And as Senna’s early death is telegraphed throughout the film, you sense that Senna himself, a deeply religious man, had premonitions of the day his car would fail him and kill him. Senna’s time at the apex of F1 racing is stunningly captured by the archive footage Kapadia astutely cuts together; he wisely avoids modern-day talking head interviews, keeping the momentum of the story firmly in the past. The race footage is terrifyingly kinetic, as is the backstage (backgarage?) footage of Senna’s contretemps with rival champion Alain Prost and F1 commandant Jean-Marie Balsetre. The most telling moment in the film is Senna’s remark made at the peak of his mythic career that he was happiest as a young go-kart racer, when money and politics didn’t matter as much as the skill of the driver.
The Gist: An inexperienced sailor records his struggles and mental decline during a round-the-world yacht race.
This deeply unnerving film follows the 1968 Golden Globe solo yacht race around the world from the helm of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur who tries to use the race to save his flagging business. We watch his preparations mired in setbacks and grow uneasy as he casts off before any of us think he’s ready. Alone, unqualified, losing his tether and far out to sea, Crowhurst quickly finds himself in an untenable place: financial ruin if he quits, suicide if he continues. So he chooses a desperate third option that sits uncomfortably with one foot in each. This is a gripping adventure yarn, made more remarkable by the footage Crowhurst shot on board his fragile trimaran. Osmond & Rothwell frame the story as equal parts a gentleman’s epic race and a descent into the darker mysteries of man’s soul.
The Gist: 17-year old Iverson stands trial on nebulous charges for a vicious crime in a racially divided city.
Allen Iverson declined to be interviewed for this film. Which is fine. This film is a function of memory, of a superstar high school player who both galvanized and polarized a community, not the divisive talent he is now after his contentious years in the NBA. The more elusive and complex story is what his hometown of Hampton, Virginia remembers 20 years after a bowling alley brawl broke out on Valentine’s Day 1993. Hampton retreated to its deep-sown racial lines and incarcerated the blacks without even indicting the whites. Yet the same city that served Iverson up to be pilloried quickly brokered a deal when it sunk that their homegrown commodity could be in prison for 15 years. James uncovers obscure facts and guarded memories. Yet the modern Iverson, who’s as inscrutable now as he was when he was convicted, remains as unreachable as the truth of what happened in that bowling alley.
The Gist: Two climbers’ ascent of Siula Grande in Peru becomes a harrowing battle for survival.
Mountaineering tends to less cinematic than you’d think because it’s more dilatory than you think (plus you can’t see anyone’s faces). But it also has that journey of the human spirit to it as well, and MacDonald wisely and without sentimentality joins the two in this film. Because we meet the two climbers in the doc section, some surface suspense is taken away, so in the recreation (which is impeccably shot) MacDonald focuses on the tenacity, skill and sheer stubborn will that was necessary for these two men to descend to base camp. The climbers are forced by a baleful, crippling accident to exist only on the most primitive emotions of fear, hope, guilt and elation, and MacDonald tells his story with the same ruthless, muscular tones. It’s a gripping story well told of talented men forced to make horrific choices, and probably the best mountaineering movie of all time, documentary or not.
The Gist: The unbearably short career of one the most heavily recruited football players of all time.
This film is filled with hyperbole. Over and over we hear that Marcus Dupree could have been the greatest running back of all time. It’s justified. Dupree’s grainy high school game tape is some of the most jaw-dropping footage ever assembled. That so many people – from college recruiters flush with money to “family advisors” who stole that money – expected Dupree to be an instant legend while ignoring that he was just a kid is just one of the terribly affecting layers of this rich and multifaceted portrait of a superstar whose career was over when he was 20. It’s dizzying to watch Hock unravel the competing forces for whom Dupree feels obligated to run – his school, his upstart USFL team, his handicapped brother, even his Mississippi town with an infamous racial stain on its past. It’s hard not to despair over the lost career of Marcus Dupree, but what could potentially be a completely demoralizing film is buoyed by Dupree himself. He looks back 25 years later on his deflated game balls, mildewed weight room and those astonishing film highlights with wonder, not bitterness, that he was that great, if only for a few years.