ESPN’s 30 for 30 Reviewed (Films 6-10)

FilmNerds contributor Matt Scalici, a sports producer at al.com, is reviewing every installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of documentaries five at a time. You can view previous installments of the series here:

Films 1-5

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

The Legend of Jimmy The Greek

Director: Fritz Mitchell

Running Time: 52 minutes

Subject: Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder rises from small-time gambler to nationally-known television personality, bringing sports betting into mainstream American culture before ultimately being done in by his alcoholism and inability to handle fame.

The Good: While the gambling aspect of the story is an interesting and sort of academic historical account of a major part of the culture of American sports, I’ve always found Jimmy The Greek to be one of the ideal examples of the fickle nature of television fame. Like many TV personalities, The Greek became famous because he was very good at one thing (handicapping sporting events) and was able to be somewhat charming and likable while doing that one thing. The hubris that comes from getting very famous very quickly (along with a drinking problem) led him to pop off about a subject he was woefully uninformed on – race. That topic remains a bit of a third rail in sports media and I think many sportswriters today probably tread more carefully on the topic thanks to the precedent set by The Greek.

The Bad: The first-person narration does not work for me, mainly because as this is meant to be a documentary, it feels patently unfair. An actor reading lines written by the filmmaker speaks from The Greek’s point of view throughout the film, occasionally drawing conclusions about the man’s life that I’m not sure the man himself would agree with. Thankfully, Brent Musberger seems to know the man as well as anyone and gives what might be one of the best series of interviews we’ve seen in the series thus far.

Final Score: B+

Watch it on Netflix Instant: LINK


The U

Director: Billy Corben

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

Subject: The rise of the Miami Hurricanes football program from perennial cupcake to national powerhouse.

The Good: Obviously, I’m a college football junkie and this film comprehensively chronicles one of the most fascinating stories in the history of the sport. It also does not shy away from the racial aspect of the Hurricanes’ public perception and acknowledges the blatant and widespread cheating that took place within the program during its heyday.

The Bad: If Kim Jong Il had a college football team and made a movie about it, it would have potentially been slightly more objective about its subject matter. Billy Corben is a Miami graduate and while he doesn’t ignore the negative aspects of the program, he does his best to explain and excuse them, sometimes in a somewhat condescending manner. Also, the original music created for the film is laughably awful.

Final Score: C

Watch it on Netflix Instant: LINK

 

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The NY Knicks

Director: Dan Klores

Running Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Subject: The mid-1990s rivalry between Reggie Miller and the New York Knicks.

The Good: By far the most entertaining entry in this series thus far and maybe the only pure comedy of the bunch. Director Dan Klores sees the absurdity hidden within the almost operatic drama of this rivalry and uses it to heighten the comedy rather than to make the story feel more important than it really was (keep in mind, there were no trophies or league championships at stake here). As interview subjects, Reggie and Cheryl Miller, Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Spike Lee are all fantastically honest, self-aware and funny and while a lot of this is played for laughs, you can definitely feel the intensity and the emotion that ran through Miller when he describes his infamous performance in Madison Square Garden during Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals. This is the first installment in this series that I felt like I could immediately watch again as soon as it ended.

The Bad: Is the story ultimately fairly low stakes? Sure, but why should these films only be about the most dramatic and tragic subjects? This is a well-made film that strikes the perfect tone for its subject and while that subject might not feel very important in the grand scheme, it was important at the time and I think it’s valuable to examine the great sports storylines that might otherwise be forgotten.

Final Score: A+

Watch it on Netflix Instant: LINK

Guru of Go

Director: Bill Couturie

Running Time: 53 minutes

Subject: Paul Westhead’s revolutionary, fast-paced style of basketball known as “The System” helped lead Loyola-Marymount to college basketball prominence but in the midst of the highest-scoring season in college basketball history, star player Hank Gathers tragically died in the middle of a game.

The Good: The film puts a spotlight on a phenomenon that could have lived much longer had Gathers’ life not been cut so tragically short. There is a moment in the film where the entire cast of characters is simply overcome with emotion as they remember the moment Hank Gathers’ died and the poignancy of watching their choked silence is far more effective than any narration could have been. Teammate Bo Kimble’s famous left-handed free throw in honor of Gathers, one of the great moments in NCAA Tournament history, is incredibly moving to watch even if you’ve already seen it a hundred times. The story gets rather complicated in the end with lawsuits and Westhead’s comeback as a WNBA coach but ultimately director Couturie handles these complications smoothly.

The Bad: The Shakespeare references used as the framework for the film seem a little ham-fisted and don’t quite fit the action, outside of Westhead’s personal affinity for the bard.

Final Score: A-

Watch it on Netflix Instant: LINK

 

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

Director: Steve James

Running Time: 1 hour 22 minutes

Subject: The town of Hampton, Virginia became embroiled with racial tension after then-high school superstar Allen Iverson was put on trial for inciting a race riot at a local bowling alley in 1993.

The Good: Documentaries are films and at the end of the day, the filmmaker is always going to matter more than the subject. When it comes to filmmakers, Steve James is perhaps the most accomplished name to helm an installment of the 30 for 30 series to date and it shows. James, a Hampton-native, is not only honest about his subjectivity on the subject of Allen Iverson, he recognizes that no resident of Hampton could possibly be anything other than subjective about the story. In some ways that’s actually what this film is about, even more so than Iverson himself. To both the white and black communities, Iverson became a symbol rather than a human being and the facts of his case didn’t matter nearly as much as the larger debate surrounding it. Maybe the finest moment of the film comes when Iverson is shown openly weeping over the death of the white tutor that helped him earn his high school diploma.

The Bad: It would have been great if James could have landed an interview with Iverson for the film but it’s certainly easy to understand why Iverson wouldn’t want to discuss the subject. And again, the film is much more about the town of Hampton. In some ways, it almost feels appropriate that Iverson wasn’t interviewed personally since most of the people who had strong opinions on the case didn’t know Iverson and didn’t have any interest in him beyond his role as a symbol of either defiant criminal behavior or ignorant racist persecution.

Final Score: A+

Watch it on Neflix Instant: LINK