In reviewing Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War" yesterday, I mentioned my approval for Sundance documentaries that stoke my sense of righteous indignation. But that doesn't mean that I can't be just as appreciative (or more) of something as seemingly frivolous as a good sports documentary.
 
At my first Sundance in 2009, one of the best films I saw was "Thriller in Manila." The following year, I was able to put aside my general antipathy for the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks to love "Winning Time." And last year, no documentary I saw at Sundance packed the visceral and emotional punch of "Senna."
 
It shouldn't surprise regular readers, then, that one of my most anticipated titles at this year's Festival was "The Other Dream Team," Marius Markevicius' film about the 1992 Lithuanian National Basketball team.
 
I didn't have one of the tie-dyed Lithuania hoops t-shirts, but I sure wanted one. I'm never one to turn down the chance to watch Arvydas Sabonis highlights. And if we're doing amateur genealogy, half of my family considers Lithuania to be "The Old Country." 
 
"The Other Dream Team," playing in the US Documentary competition, may just have been too much in my wheelhouse, in the sense that I had the version of the film that I wanted to see in my head and I was disappointed by the actual film's pacing and focus. 
 
I don't think I've ever done this before, but I'm inclined to quote Roger Ebert's Tweet from last night: "Never ask a person who knows anything about the subject what they think of a documentary." I don't know if I'd say "never ask," but "take with a grain of salt" isn't a bad idea. "The Other Dream Team" wasn't the 1992 Lithuanian Basketball movie that I necessarily wanted, but it could absolutely be the 1992 Lithuanian Basketball movie that you want, assuming you want such a thing.
 
Full review after the break.
 
Markevicious begins the film in the aftermath of the USSR's 1988 Olympics basketball win, a triumph fueled by four Lithuanian starters and a victory that led directly the introduction of NBA players to Olympic rosters in order to help the United States regain its lapsed hoops dominance. 
 
From there, the documentary simultaneously journeys back to the roots of the Lithuanian obsession with basketball -- Frank Lubin and the 1939 European championship -- and country's many decades of vicious occupation by the Soviet Union. We then go into the '70s and '80s, meeting the generation of players who would anchor the teams that won medals in three straight Olympics, a core led by Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis. This is woven into Lithuania's reemergence as a independent nation and the 1992 team credited with reestablishing and reasserting the Lithuanian international presence.
 
Despite its title and its Festival-provided description, "The Other Dream Team" doesn't reach the 1992 Olympics until at least an hour into its already terse 88-minute running time. Key Barcelona moments that you'd expect to be central in the documentary -- The key games against the United States and The Unified Team -- unfold only in the briefest of forms, while culturally crucial moments like the decision to wear those awesome tie-dyes for the medal ceremony, are almost entirely glossed over. The use of the word "Other" in the title also implies at least a more cursory look at the American Dream Team, especially given the role the Lithuanians played in getting Jordan, Magic, Barkley and company into the red, white and blue in the first place. A sense of the different things that the two Dream Teams were playing for, and their very different approaches to the entire experience, might have been illuminating. 
 
I just can't see the purpose to giving the Olympics so little focus, especially given the other ways Markevicius chose to fill his limited time.  I know he was concerned that American audiences might not be fully informed on Lithuanian history and I don't begrudge the desire to give the documentary historical context. But who is the audience Markevicius is convinced needs a five-minute explanation about how the United States and USSR were rivals and that the Russians were our designated bad guys for roughly five decades? In an 88-minute movie, is that efficient? Do we also need generic stock footage of Hitler and Stalin? Parts of Markevicius' history lesson are necessary, but other pieces are just autopilot regurgitation of information that could have been either assumed or introduced in a sentence of voice-over or an onscreen title card. I'd trade a full half of the documentary's first hour in exchange for a clearer look at that Olympic team, how they were viewed in their home country and what their lasting legacy has been.
 
The "legacy" issue is covered through a series of cutaways to Jonas Valanciunas, the Lithuanian teen drafted by the Toronto Raptors in the 2011 draft. Markevicius seems to have been seduced by Valanciunas' high profile, without realizing that as a documentary subject, the lanky center is a bust. Once you accept -- without anybody making the connection in words -- that Valanciunas' potential NBA career would never have been possible without the 1992 stars, he's a dead-end, a dead end Markevicius is obliged to keep returning to, even when his segments detract from more interesting subjects.
 
Markevicius has gotten interviews from all of the principles from that 1992 team and they've all been allowed to speak in their native tongue to allow their personalities to come out. But those personalities only sometimes come to the surface. Great moments, for example, include the players joking about Valdemaras Chomicius' black market shopping skills and a couple of the reactions to meeting the Grateful Dead and first getting those tie-dyed shirts.
 
More frequently, though, we're listening to Sabonis' rumbling monotone and switching between identically composed talking heads of players who, other than Sabonis and Marciulionis aren't even vaguely identified as players or contributors to the effort. With the emphasis on the unity and teamwork on those Lithuanian teams, I would have loved for a couple of the players to grouped together, anything to change up the dynamic and vary the memories. There's a presentational seriousness to the film that's completely at odds with public persona of the team the world fell in love with. That could have been Markevicius' thesis -- these men played a certain role in the spotlight, but behind the scenes they felt the weight of a nation -- but it's not.
 
Although it has no ties to the ESPN Films banner, "The Other Dream Team" plays as a decent "30 for 30" documentary, but lacks the focus or personal connections to earn a place in that franchise's upper echelon. In fact, viewers who come to "The Other Dream Team" on the heels of a "30 for 30" marathon will likely view it as a lesser version of "Once Brothers," which checked off many of the same boxes involving Eastern European political upheaval, basketball as representative for a national consciousness and the uneasy transition of Europe's best players in an increasingly globalized NBA. And "Once Brothers" wasn't even among my favorite "30 for 30" films.
 
The story behind "The Other Dream Team" is good enough on its own to withstand many of those questionable choices, but it didn't end up being the nourishing sports documentary I was craving from Sundance 2012. Perhaps I'll do better tomorrow with "China Heavyweight." Stay tuned.