Top 30 Sports Documentaries of All Time, Part 3: #10 – #1

Part 3 of 3 in our Series of Top 30 Sports Documentaries.  See 21-30 and 11-20.


The Gist: The first Jewish sports icon reaches his peak just as Germany begins World War II.

It’s not intentional, but it’s also not surprising.  7 of my Top 10 sports docs deal quite pointedly with racial identity.  And we begin here with Hammerin’ Hank.  To generations of Jews, Greenberg was a hero.  A dominating slugger who destroyed anti-Semitic stereotypes and refused to change his name through a career sullied by the intolerance of the world around him.  And then quit in his prime to fight the Nazis.  The film is seemingly a fawning homage to Greenberg’s legacy, yet it constantly surprises with its contradictions.  And it’s disarmingly funny as it does.  This legendary player is described as loping and awkward, that he had no speed and no arm.  He was a proud Jew, but not an observant one, even as his rabbi scrubbed the Talmud for scriptural precedent that a Jew can play baseball on Rosh Hashanah if it conflicts with the pennant race.  Greenberg’s last season was Jackie Robinson’s first.  In one quick conversation at first base, Greenberg passes the strength he embodied through prejudice on to Robinson.  The film may feel gloriously rooted in the past, thanks in large part to the marvelous footage unearthed by Kempner, but in these days of Michael Sam and Jason Collins, it feels more timely than ever.  Plus: Mandy Patinkin.  Singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”.  In Yiddish.


The Gist: A ragged cabal of teenage skate rats in Venice, California invent extreme skateboarding. 

There’s a notion that the importance of a documentary is inextricably tied to the supposed nobility of its subject.  While there’s some innate truth to that, it doesn’t take anything away from a joyously constructed distillation of a time, place and community like we get in this film.  Director and former Z-Boy Peralta (the most commercially savvy among them – dig his Charlie’s Angels cameo) employs ridiculously vibrant Super-8 footage of the Z-Boys taking a tame, unthreatening, picayune pastime and grinding it under their Vans.  Peralta’s style fits his substance, his whiplash editing and sound design giving a middle finger to the accepted aesthetic of doc filmmaking.  And it’s not just a pastiche of empty adrenaline.  Peralta’s access and sensitivity to his old friends is remarkable, most notably with the most natural talent among them, Jay Adams, who knows the X-Games were born in Dogtown and that he’ll never get to share its legacy.  Just because this film isn’t about the Olympics or racial barriers or a rivalry for the ages doesn’t mean it’s not a lovingly made and meticulously researched human story of a unique group at a unique time experiencing friendship, innovation, failure and success.  And that those same shaggy reprobates who slept under piers and broke into swimming pools completely revolutionized modern sports.


The Gist: A montage of news feeds from one of the most unexpectedly important days in recent sports history.

When we love sports, we’re gluttons about it.  This film, the most stylistically distinct of the 30 for 30 films, serves that gluttony.  Because it’s just the feed.  The often flailing and incompetent sports coverage of that bizarre day, the channel-flipping binge of appetite that encompassed multiple sports, multiple coincidences, and one man falling from hero to monster at 35 miles an hour.  With no interviews, no narrator, Morgen (and his ace editor Andy Grieve) throw the day at us clinically and without judgment:  Ken Griffey Jr.’s home run record, Arnold Palmer’s last US Open, the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup parade, the World Cup Opening Ceremony (the only thing missing from the film is Diana Ross’ spooned penalty kick).  Threaded throughout these moments is the real story: O.J. in the Ford Bronco.  At surface glance, it’s an act of couch potato nostalgia.  But its depths reveal something altogether more insidious and disquieting because the film’s really about us.  Whose last act do we remember from that day – Arnie or O.J.?  How did we want the freeway chase to end?  And when we got bored, did we flip over to the Knicks game?  It’s a grotesque looking glass that reflects our baser instincts when we pin our emotions and values on the sports we consume.


The Gist: The United States Wheelchair Rugby team prepares for the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games.

This film still feels subversive because these men aren’t as superficially gallant as we presume our inspirational doc subjects should be.  There’s virtually nothing about Murderball that’s sappy or falsely motivational, and it finds so many unexpected notes of humanity under all the sleeve tattoos and wheelchair-mounted cameras.  Its power as a story of human resilience emerges most surprisingly with the unsentimental insight of star player Mark Zupan, who celebrates his quadriplegia, saying the paralyzed man that he is today has accomplished more in his wheelchair than the man who became paralyzed because he passed out drunk in a truck bed.  It’s a tough lesson for the newly incapacitated teenager who wants to join the squad but wants them to stop saying that his paralysis will never be cured.  The film subverts our expectations that they should hold forth on the frailty of human existence with sage affirmations and gravel-voiced wisdom.  They don’t.  They tell you what sex in a wheelchair is like.  These men embrace their life with the same aggression and fearlessness as they do their sport.  And in one last subversive grace note, that fearlessness is tested once they get to Athens.


The Gist: The country’s first black sports superstar battles more than his opponents in Jim Crow America.

White women.  That’s how the first black heavyweight champion finally lost.  White America was petrified of giving a black man a chance at the championship, and just as petrified to let him dare to keep it after he’d won it.  So they took his conspicuous penchant for white women, called it white slavery, charged him with the same, and exiled him to Europe.  Because of his ‘unforgivable blackness’.  The Jack Johnson that Burns captures is not only utterly unassailable in the ring, but also a man of unbounded appetite and unblinkered confidence.  Johnson made himself an enemy of the state simply because he insisted that he was a citizen and a champion, and that he deserved to be treated as both.  But his pride was seen as arrogance, his physique as savage.  His intelligence as a danger, his skill as a threat.  It’s easy to be lulled by Burns’ unhurried pace, by his sepia-tinged evocation of handlebar mustaches and ‘gandy dancers’, but that pace is a mirror for the galling years when Johnson was denied his rightful crack at the championship.  And then this leisurely time-capsule curio sucker-punches you with some of the most repugnant Jim Crow debasement you’ve ever heard (Jack London fans won’t like what they hear).  It’s a terribly poignant resurrection of a most uncommon man brought down by the most common of bigots.


The Gist: A ruthless drug kingpin and a beloved soccer player personify both the joy and the terror of Colombia’s bid to win the 1994 World Cup.

I remember the match.  After seeing this film, I wish more than anything that we’d lost.  The Two Escobars is a dense and nerve-wracking crime epic more than a sports doc, and it’s easily the best of the 30 for 30’s.  To us, the ’94 Colombian side was an explosively talented team, a nearly angelic citadel rising from the blood-riven streets of Medellín; in reality, it was a front for laundering millions in drug money, and a group of men afraid for their very lives.  The two Escobars are the adored team captain Andrés and the butchering cartel sociopath Pablo.  Starting with the film’s title, the Zimbalists expertly weave together contradictions and opposites.  Pablo’s bullets and coke spun Colombia into a snakepit of murder and corruption; they also kept Colombia’s best players like Andrés in the country, built homes for their families and stadiums for their children.  The exultation of the fans at the incomparable artistry of the team is fearfully juxtaposed with the raw, leaching wound of cartel-era Colombia, where women, children and uncooperative referees die in a seep of their own blood (the humidity, the ferocity, the sadism of the archival footage is unparalleled).  But it can’t compare with the haunted faces of Andrés and his team trudging onto the pitch to play the U.S. at the Rose Bowl, knowing that millions in drug money were at stake.  Knowing that without that drug money, Colombia couldn’t win.  But it also couldn’t lose. And that if anyone happens to make a mistake, it could literally kill him.


The Gist: The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics captured with equal parts beauty and controversy.


Nazi propaganda.  That’s the problem.  I’ll circle back to that.  From the objective perspective of technical innovation in cinematography, editing and sound design, Riefenstahl did things in Olympia that simply had never been done before.  Some of the most revolutionary, quantum-leap filmmaking of its time, its influence on film and especially sports broadcasting can be felt to this day.  Each of the 29 other films on this list are indebted to Olympia on the most fundamental level.  Yet this is the Birth of a Nation of sports docs.  There’s not enough space here to consider both the troubling context of Olympia’s creation or the rebellions Riefenstahl undertook as she created it.  Yes, Joseph Goebbels funded it.  Yes, the Nazis intended with this film to impart the mythos of the idealized athlete onto a strictly Aryan framework.  Riefenstahl submarined nationalistic ideology in favor of aestheticizing the athletes regardless of race.  And yes, this may have simply been because circumstances conspired to make Jesse Owens the icon of the ’36 Games.  Admiring Olympia requires a lot prevaricating, but its place as the most influential sports documentary of all time is unchallenged.


The Gist: A comprehensive character study of the sport, from its humble beginnings to its complicated present.


It’s almost not fair to put this thing on the list.  Too short even at 18 hours, it’s a surfeit of riches.  Sprawling with ease across 9 “innings”, Baseball is as much a reflection of American society as it is a chronicle of the game.  It’s bursting with the iconic moments for the truest fans, as well as a few obscure howlers – my favorite being the “Merkle Boner”.  But Burns’ greatest strength is his treatment of more than a century of baseball as a crucible where themes of race, segregation, nationalistic pride, antitrust legislation, global war, global identity, national identity, greed and crime unfold in front of generations of fans both faithful and fickle who thrill and suffer with the fates of their teams.  It stands with Burns’ other epics The Civil War and Jazz (and the film at #6) as a painstaking microcosmic narrative of race in the American character, where indignity and prejudice were at their ugliest to be sure, but began to fall away on the diamond faster than the rest of the country.  And it treats the sport as a character, one that’s seen joy and scandal, hope and failure in its long lifetime, wistful for its uncluttered youth, when it was just a game.


The Gist: Muhammad Ali and George Foreman travel to Kinshasa for the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle”.

Sports happen every damn day.  So many titles, tournaments and trophies threaten to render it all meaningless to only the most passionate, maybe the most desperate.  It’s literally once in a generation that a couple of hours of sports take on globally significant social meaning.  This was Ali we want, at the apex of his charisma, as nimble a rake as he is a fighter.  It’s also Ali at his most complex, still polarizing to an America in the backwash of Watergate and nearly messianic to a Zaire in the grip of a bloodletting dictator.  Gast had to sit on his tremendous footage for 20 years for legal reasons, and the film is exponentially the better for it because the Rumble in the Jungle has since taken on the stuff of legend.  All the talking head interviews are with the spectators – George Plimpton and Norman Mailer – pretty badass in of itself.  There’s no reflection or postmortem from the protagonists, not Ali, Foreman, Don King or President Mobutu.  Who they were in 1974 is what shaped the conversation about race, globalization, greed, religion, power and identity.  The film is about how we saw the fight, how Africans saw it, and only peripherally how we see Ali and Foreman today (through quite different prisms).  And I haven’t even mentioned James Brown and B.B. King.


The Gist: Four years with two inner-city Chicago teenagers and their hopes for a better life through basketball.

It’s quite simple, really: Hoop Dreams is one of the richest documents of American life in a generation.  It’s the American Dream parsed in joyous, bitter, excruciating and wondrous detail.  Steve James committed to two young talents William Gates and Arthur Agee for their entire high school career, shooting over 200 hours of footage over four years.  William and Arthur commute to a middle-class (white) high school whose coin of the realm is that it’s Isaiah Thomas’ alma mater.  It’s there that their value as a profitable commodity becomes awkwardly clear, blithely determined along lines of race and class – and who can get them to the state championship.  As the assumptions we make about the boys’ careers are undermined, we’re simultaneously enveloped by the story that James is really telling – that the kids’ hoop dreams are writ across entire families and communities.  The Gates and Agee families, as strong as they are flawed, encourage their children’s dreams even when the insistent reality of poverty threatens to overwhelm them from the moment they wake up.  When the pick-up court where their son develops his jump shot is the same court where the father scores drugs.  Arthur’s mother asks James to his face how he thinks they can survive when a birthday cake is a substantial investment.  In fact, for all the glory and promises of fame and riches for the taking on the court, the most profound victory in the film belongs to the family.  And it happens in an empty rec hall, with something as simple and profoundly earned as a nursing certificate.  Make no mistake, the drama on the court is staggering, but it’s the filmmakers’ subtlety, empathy and ability to fold together the smallest detail and the widest scope that takes a great film and makes it legendary.

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