ESPN’s 30 for 30 Reviewed (Films 1-5)

Tuesday night saw the premiere of Broke on ESPN, marking the beginning of a second volume of the network’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series. The ambitious project, which premiered in 2009, aims to tell some of the greatest sports stories of the ESPN era through films by some of the best working filmmakers and while some installments fell flat, others have achieved the kind of widespread critical success usually reserved for theatrical releases.

We at FilmNerds are all relatively big sports fans but as the member of the FilmNerds gang who also spends his working hours as a sportswriter, I have taken it upon myself to turn a critical eye to this series of documentaries. I’ll review the original series of 30 for 30 films five at a time until we’re caught up, at which time I’ll turn my attention to Volume II.

Have your own opinion on these films? Drop your thoughts into the comments section at the bottom of the post.


King’s Ransom

Director: Peter Berg

Running Time: 52 minutes

Subject: The 1988 trade that sent hockey legend Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings.

The Good: Perhaps the most interesting facet of this movie is the way Berg is able to capture the popularity and excitement of the NFL in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when hockey truly deserved to be categorized as one of the “four major sports” in America. The story is one of the all-time classic examples of finances triumphing over the desire for greatness, another version of the classic temptation story that has played out so many times in the history of sports.

The Bad: Berg is personal friends with Gretzky and their interview sessions conducted for the documentary were done during a casual round of golf. This has its plusses (like Berg being able to give his own perspective on Gretzky’s time in LA) but also its minuses. Berg seems hesitant to press Gretzky on the single biggest question raised by the film: why did Gretzky leave a championship franchise at the height of his career? To be fair, Berg does ask and even asks if Gretzky regrets the decision but at times it feels like he’s accepting answers from Gretzky that don’t feel entirely sincere.

Final Score: B+

Watch it on Netflix Instant: LINK

The Band That Wouldn’t Die

Director: Barry Levinson

Running Time: 54 minutes

Subject: In the wake of the 1984 midnight move of the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis, the famous Colts Marching Band decides to play on, despite no longer having a team to cheer for.

The Good: Levinson is known for his dark sense of humor and there’s something darkly comic about a marching band continuing on despite losing its primary purpose. The best stuff in this film by far is the archive footage of Colts owner Robert Irsay drunkenly telling off the Baltimore press, who begin to suspect he may be preparing to take the team elsewhere. It’s a truly bizarre moment and gives you a great sense of the fear Baltimore Colts fans must have felt knowing that the fate of their favorite team was in the hands of a madman.

The Bad: While there are a few nice emotional moments with the members of the band as they recount their story, the whole band plot thread can’t help but feel a little low stakes. At the end of the day, hundreds if not thousands of people lost jobs as a result of the move and the entire economy of Baltimore was impacted by Irsay’s alcoholism and greed-driven decision.

Final Score: B-

Watch it on Netflix Instant: LINK


Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

Director: Mike Tollin

Running Time: 53 minutes

Subject: The startup United States Football League revolutionized professional football in the mid-1980s but was derailed by the personal ambitions of team owner Donald Trump.

The Good: It’s a bizarre story and one worth telling. For those of us too young to have lived through the USFL’s brief existence, watching this documentary feels almost like one of those gimmicky alternate history films – only this actually happened. The anecdotes are often fantastically entertaining and in a world in which the NFL’s complete supremacy is taken for granted, it’s novel and amusing to glimpse a world not that long ago in which there was a legitimate alternative that, at times, seemed like the better choice. Tollin’s brief confrontation with Trump is also one of the great must-see moments of the entire 30 for 30 series.

The Bad: Like the league itself, Tollin’s story never really goes anywhere, though his attempt to put a satisfying bow on everything at the end actually ends up cheapening what came before. In the end this is a disappointing story about something very cool being destroyed by someone with selfish motives and that truth gets a little lost in Tollin’s desire to look back fondly on his “halcyon days”.

Final Score:  B-

Watch it on Netflix Instant: LINK

Muhammad and Larry

Director: Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan

Running Time: 53 minutes

Subject: A mix of interviews and raw footage tell the story of Muhammad Ali’s training for his final fight with rival Larry Holmes, along with the heartbreaking aftermath.

The Good: The first film in the series that feels like legitimate, theatrical-quality filmmaking. Directed by the man who essentially invented modern documentary filmmaking, the footage captured for a documentary that was ultimately never released (until 30 for 30) shows Ali well beyond his prime but desperately struggling to convince fans and the media that he’s still got it. The footage is both heartbreaking and disturbing as we watch with the benefit of hindsight knowing that Ali was not only fooling himself but may have also been destroying himself in the process.

The Bad: It’s hard to find an ending to this story that doesn’t feel abrupt but ultimately, I’m OK with the somewhat light-hearted ending, showing a jovial, overweight Larry Holmes living out life in relative obscurity. It’s an interesting contrast to Ali, who while still among the most famous and beloved athletes in the world has been tragically diminished both physically and mentally.

Final Score: A+

Watch it on Netflix Instant: LINK

Without Bias

Director: Kirk Fraser

Running Time: 52 minutes

Subject: Two days after his dreams came true in the NBA Draft, basketball star Len Bias dropped dead from a cocaine overdose.

The Good: This is an incredibly thorough and fair-minded documentary that includes interviews with journalists, friends, family members and coaches that knew Bias at every stage of his life. Obviously, the story is ultimately a sad one but made even sadder by the promise and hope that Bias inspired with his incredible abilities and personality.

The Bad: Hard to find flaws with this one. It’s easily one of the crown jewels of the 30 for 30 series to date.

Final Score: A

Watch it on Netflix Instant: LINK