ESPN doc series keeps tackling tragedies, focusing on Len Bias and Jimmy the Greek
Another week, another sporting tragedy courtesy of ESPN's exemplary "30 for 30" documentary franchise.
It turns out that giving 30 filmmakers carte blanche to tell the sporting stories of their choosing means a lot of sadness and a lot of attempted catharsis.
We've already had the tragic story of a boxer who fought for too long ("Muhammad and Larry"), the tragic story of a football league murdered by Donald Trump ("Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?") and the tragic story of a city that lost a hockey icon ("Kings Ransom"). Even "The Band That Wouldn't Die," a phoenix-from-the-ashes tale, begins with the tragic story of a city abandoned and betrayed by its NFL franchise.
Looking ahead, "30 for 30" has more tragedies to come, but there also seem to be a couple purely inspirational tales on tap (mostly in 2010), but only Bill Simmons and company know for sure why we've led off with six consecutive weeks of "30 for 30" pathos.
I've already waxed sufficiently rhapsodic about the overall awesomeness of the "30 for 30" endeavor, but I've still got small-ish reviews of "Without Bias" and "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek" after the break...
"Without Bias" (director Kirk Frasier) - Premieres Tuesday, Nov. 3
"Without Bias" replaces "Small Potatoes" as the worst of the "30 for 30" docs to date, a designation that comes with the same caveat as my criticisms of that USFL doc. If you do not know the story of Len Bias and you want a very basic and by-the-numbers perspective on the story, "Without Bias" is completely successful and never boring for a second. It suffers more from comparisons with the Levinson, Berg and Maysles documentaries than from serious failings of its own.
Maybe that later statement isn't exactly true. "Without Bias" is actually a real mess. Frasier previously made a feature-length documentary about Bias, the former University of Maryland star and Celtics draftee who died from cocaine-related causes. That feature-length Bias doc has played at some festivals and has been teased in long segments on HBO, but it never got a theatrical release. I haven't seen it, but "Without Bias" gives the very strong impression of just being a gutted version of that feature.
"Without Bias" starts off very basic, using talking heads and stock footage to establish Bias' credentials, his picture-perfect jumper and his explosive athleticism. Then, in heartbreaking fashion, it cobbles together the events of Bias' last night, complete with the terrified recollections of the players who were partying with the star, plus the 911 call. It's not artful or complicated, but it's moving.
Then, in the last 20 minutes, "Without Bias" touches on three or four subplots, which are mentioned and discarded without ever being sufficiently developed and, thus, never proving their theses. Did the Bias tragedy lead to the passage of mandatory minimums for drug offenders? If so, Frasier never proves his case. Was the capping tragedy of Bias' case the death of his younger brother? If so, Frasier never proves his case. Was there a positive side to Bias' story, both as a cautionary tale and in the way it inspired his mother to be motivational speaker to troubled youths? If so, Frasier throws it in at the very end, a conclusion with no support within the documentary. I'd assume that in a 90-minute version of "Without Bias," all of these loose strands were better embellished and proven.
"The Legend of Jimmy the Greek" (director Fritz Mitchell) - Premieres Tuesday, Nov. 10
Fritz Mitchell is an Emmy-winning TV sports producer and a veteran of ESPN's "Sports Century" project," which I've already called the cable network's pre-"30 for 30" pinnacle. He's a pro, but not necessarily an artist, which is why "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek" is vastly more conventional than "Muhammad and Larry," "Kings Ransom" and "The Band That Wouldn't Die." Perhaps because they weren't trained in the world of hour-long sports documentary storytelling, those filmmakers didn't need to play by those rules. Mitchell knows the rules and the pacing that the genre typically demands and he doesn't try to break from his background. Because he's good at what he does, "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek" is a good story, well told, even if it maybe lacks for inspiration or flair.
Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder is depicted as a specifically American tragedy. Small-town blue collar kid pulls himself up by his own bootstraps and revolutionizes the world of sports gambling. Along the way, he experienced trouble with the law and family tragedy, while battling his own addictions and appetites. And his downfall? More sad and pathetic, than awful and reprehensible.
Although Mitchell's presence (or perspective) is sorely lacking from the film, his associations with the world of sports broadcasting have given him tremendous access, or at least made a surprising assortment of talking heads feel comfortable enough to be candid with him. Brent Musburger, Irv Cross and Phyllis George, for example, are open about how Jimmy operated on "The NFL Today," discussing the off-air feuds, including the famous brawl between The Greek and Snyder. Dan Rather, victim of his own awkward parting of ways with CBS, makes for a poignant voice of reason as well.
Probably Mitchell would have benefited from making less of a linear biopic. He gets bogged down in amusing tidbits like Jimmy the Greek's distaste for Thomas Dewey's mustache. Yes, "Dewey Defeats Truman" Thomas Dewey. It's a cute story, but I'd have left moments light that on the cutting room floor in exchange for more time on The Greek's influence on sports gambling in Vegas, or perhaps a few additional perspectives on the controversial (or "just plain ignorant") comments that cemented his downfall. That may just be a personal preference.
"The Legend of Jimmy the Greek" is the first of the six "30 for 30" docs that could have aired as a "Out the Lines" special or as part of ESPN's "Sports Century." That's not a bad thing.