Sundance Review: 'Linsanity' spreads to Park City with some candidness

Documentary takes Jeremy Lin fans back to last spring

Posted Jan 20, 2013 8:09 PM By
Merely living under a rock last February wouldn't have sheltered you from the pervasive ubiquity of Linsanity.
Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin was all anybody wanted to discuss on sports talk radio. ESPN practically rebranded in his image. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover in consecutive weeks. He was on the cover of Time. He became the most beloved figure in one of the biggest media markets in the world.
New York City is known for creating stars in short order, but with Jeremy Lin, the duration between cult stardom (and mainstream anonymity) and global omnipresence was literally less than a week.
The Grand Narrative of Jeremy Lin was oft-repeated gospel before he had started five games in the NBA. We knew about his Harvard and going undrafted. We knew about his multiple stints in the NBA Development League and about his being waived first by the Warriors and then by the Rockets. We knew he was moments from his third cutting of the season when he blew up in the second half of a game against the Nets. We knew that even as the Knicks went on a long winning streak, he was sleeping on a couch. We knew about his religious devotion, we knew exactly how many puns you could do on his last name and we knew that if you give the media enough time to talk about an Asian-American athlete stupid people who slip into intended and unintended racism before the passing of a single moon.
I sat down for Sunday's (January 20) world premiere of Evan Jackson Leong's predictably titled documentary "Linsanity" with some measure of trepidation, since the last thing I (or Sundance) needed was a hastily turned around Lin documentary regurgitating the same underdog narrative.
It's a relief to report that while Leong's "Linsanity" is a relatively familiar hagiography, the director had begun his focus on Lin before the madness and he was working with Lin's candid cooperation. That means that while none of the facts or linear details in "Linsanity" count as a revelation, Lin's personality is able to shine through. There are some very strange choices and problematic missteps in the storytelling here, but it turns out that I like Jeremy Lin and in a brisk documentary that goes a long way.
More on "Linsanity" after the break...
For Leong, "Linsanity" ended up being one of those minor miracles that documentary filmmakers pray for. He began documenting Lin in his senior year in college, when the most reasonable expectation was that he would be following the rare Asian-American college basketball star as he ended his successful Ivy League tenure and scrambled to craft a career in professional basketball, probably in a league well below the NBA.
And that would have been an intriguing story. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Lin is a poster-boy for the assimilated first generation American experience. His father fell in love with basketball after moving to the United States and passed that love along to his sons, while his mother immediately supported his embrace. While the narrative around Lin has always revolved around his racial makeup and ignorant commentators have relied on euphemism to discuss his skill-set, praising his cerebral game or his hard work, that's always been ridiculous to anybody who has watched him play. Lin is fast. Lin is strong. Lin is athletic. And it's fantastic to watch footage dating back to us AAU and high school days to see that Jeremy Lin has always just been a good basketball player even if people have struggled to see past non-NBA-standard appearance.
In most of his interviews last spring, Lin was marvelously diplomatic and that remains the case for most of his interviews in this documentary, but every once in a while, you sense his frustration and when he looks back on his state championship high school career and says "If I was black, I'd have gotten a Div. 1 scholarship," you know he's correct. 
Mostly, perhaps because of his faith, Lin isn't bitter at being perpetually underestimated, nor is he angry about the racial epithets he has faced over the years. If anything, he alternates between being magnanimous and being confused. 
As he puts it, "I hate when everyone's looking at me. I hate the spotlight." 
If humility was the attribute he chose to emphasize in media coverage in the midst of Linsanity, here he's comfortable enough around Leong that he's willing to just let his goofball flag fly. Whether mocking his own childhood difficulties playing the piano or singing horrible karaoke in Taiwan or singing "Poison" in commercial outtakes or marveling at a tacky desk fountain from Target, Lin comes across as exactly the sort of unself-conscious dork I can get behind rooting for.
My own personal preference would be for less of a religious focus to "Linsanity," but what the heck would I be expecting from a documentary about an athlete who has always claimed his success was God's will, a documentary that turns the "t" in its title into a cross. It's slightly alienating for me and probably some other viewers, but it's who Jeremy Lin is and it's not a flaw with the film. 
There are flaws, however.
Films often come to Sundance still wet from the editing room. I remember watching "West of Memphis" last Sundance and being astounded that there was footage from interviews conducted literally four days earlier. To me, doing a documentary about the phenomenon of Jeremy Lin and essentially ending your film before the end of his season and, more importantly, before looking at the controversy, resolution and blow-back from Lin's free agent experience verges on topically inexcusable to me. Linsanity could not have happened in the same way anywhere other than New York City and the way that chapter ended, both on a basketball level and on an economic/marketing level, is perhaps more interesting that the easy hero-worship stuff that came before. Leong seems, in fact, to have called it quits on his participating just when things got most... ummm... linsane. Once you have Jeremy Lin being reflective, I want his actual opinion on the "chink in the armor" kerfuffle or the fortune cookie nonsense. 
Because of the timing of Leong's involvement, there are strange restrictions to his access on many fronts. Landry Fields, for example, is the only one of his NBA teammates to do an interview. The New York media, which made Lin into a king, isn't represented in any way. The reality, I suspect, is that as Lin blew up, it was harder and harder for Leong to get access. That figures.
Then there are some weird choices.
When Lin goes undrafted, Leong runs through a quick montage of less successful players who were drafted instead, singling out almost entirely foreign players. Not only is it premature to malign most of those draft picks, since they were always draft-and-stash picks, but it seems weird for a documentary celebrating one outsider talent to validate him at the expense of other outsiders. 
There's also a problematic decision to set one February montage to Psy's "Gangnam Style," a song that post-dated Lin's rise and, of course, comes from a Korean artist. You think that that sort of thing isn't a big deal, but rest assured that if a white director were making a film about a Taiwanese-American and conflated his status with the explosion of a Korean artist, that white director would be justifiably accused of Orientalism. I could make a similar statement regarding Daniel Dae Kim's narration. 
Between ESPN, HBO and NBA TV, I'm assuming that somebody out there will want to give "Linsanity" a home, even if the fires aren't burning as bright in his currently Rockets incarnation.  While, as sports documentaries go, I wouldn't put this in the upper tier of either the "30 For 30" franchise or HBO Sports, I think Leong's access (for much of the film) and Lin's relaxed openness will provide entertainment for those still suffering from Linfluenza.
Other 2013 Sundance Film Festival Reviews:
"Inequality For All"
"The Spectacular Now"
"After Tiller"
"The Summit"
"The World According to Dick Cheney"
"Who Is Dayani Cristal?"