30 for 30 Documentaries

Because this series is so long, I’ve decided to put all my reviews on one page.

King’s Ransom (2009, Peter Berg) – 6/10

This is a pretty standard documentary that fails to shed much light on the most famous hockey trade of all time.

Berg doesn’t give us enough context – I must assume that most Americans don’t really get how important hockey is and what Berg tells them isn’t enough – and he spends two much of his film “interviewing” Gretzky as they play golf, almost as if to say “Hey look! I am playing golf with Gretzky!”


The Band that Wouldn’t Die (2009, Barry Levinson) – 7/10

This is a fascinating documentary about the Baltimore Colts Band that refused to stop playing after the Colts left town.

The reason I didn’t quite like it as much as I should is that this is very much half the story. It’s great these people love football this much. I’m glad for them. Good for them for persisting. But it’s hard to take a completely positive stance knowing how much pro sports leagues gouge city and state budgets and this film virtually ignores that.


Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? (2009, Michaell Tollin) – 8/10

This documentary feels a little too personal at times – Tollin worked for one of the teams – and I was worried that it would be one of these “I made this film for myself” types of documentaries where the filmmaker is too involved. It also starts out with too much Howard Cosell. (Tollin uses one of his programs too much.)

But the story is so interesting, and the interviews are so compelling that you sort of forget about that part. (And, to his credit, Tollin only sporadically includes his stuff with Trump.)

Really enjoyable.

Update for 2018: More relevant than ever!

Muhhamad and Larry (2009, directed by radley Kaplan, Albert Maysles) – 8/10

This is a strong documentary about Muhammad Ali’s last fight and the man he lost to, Larry Holmes, who apparently gets little recognition in the sport. (And, frankly, I’ve never heard of him.)

The film collects a lot of footage shot at the time for a documentary that never got finished, and pairs it with new interviews. I do feel like the original film might have been a great one but the decision still works reasonably well, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know boxing and so needs some context (provided by the recent interviews).

Definitely one of the stronger ones in the series so far. Worth watching whether or not you care about boxing.

Without Bias (2009, directed by Kirk Fraser) – 8/10

This is a fairly devastating documentary about the next great hope for the Celtics who died from a coke overdose shortly after being drafted. It’s a pretty standard documentary but the subject matter is compelling enough – and the interviewees are still affected by it enough, their denial is palpable – that you are just kind of overwhelmed by the tragedy. Very affecting.

(It does overreach at the end, though.)

The Legend of Jimmy the Greek (2009, Fritz Mitchell) – 5/10

I would like to know this story, it’s an interesting story. This guy’s a character and it would be nice to know his whole story. But this is not how to do it.

Though the interviews and clips are illustrative, the whole film is ruined by the bizarre decision to have Jimmy the Greek “narrate” from the grave. I have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea. It ruins what is an otherwise interesting film.

The U (2009, Billy Corben, Alfred Spellman) – 6/10

This is a missed opportunity in my mind.

I very young when this this program became successful and I probably barely knew what football is. So it would be nice if a film gave me some context. Well, this gives us a little. A little. And while some of the interviewees are interesting and while the rise of this program might be interesting, something about the way it is told – the lack of context, the presentation, the direction, the brevity of so many of the segments – just doesn’t work. I think this film probably needed to be twice as long, in addition being directed by someone else.

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks (2010, Dan Klores) – 9/10

This was the first ever 30 for 30 I ever saw, years ago now, but I don’t think I watched the whole thing so I decided to watch it again.

It’s about a perfect summary as I can think of as a sports rivalry that seemed absolutely epic at the time, but which historically isn’t really important. Everything is outsized:

  • Miller’s and Lee’s personalities,
  • the press reactions,
  • the relative importance of the games to the city of New York and the state of Indiana,
  • and so on.

The film makes us forget that neither of these teams were truly great teams, that the basketball really wasn’t very good – god those Knicks teams were ugly – and that moments like have occurred many times throughout sports, and we’ve even had some truly classic moments since, that probably absolutely outweigh these. But the film convinces you otherwise, which is why it’s probably my favourite of the series. To watch this is to think that the Knicks-Pacers rivalry of the early-mid ’90s was the only thing that mattered.

The Guru of Go (2010, Bill Couterie) – 6/10

This is an interesting if overly episodic and too brief documentary about both an interest coach who bucked trends and a terrible tragedy.

The problem for me, is that the terrible tragedy could have been the entire 50 minute film, it could have been more than that. I think this is a missed opportunity and I almost feel like there are two different stories here and the filmmakers picked the slightly less interesting one. Honestly, there’s enough material here for two separate movies, at minimum, and most of the various narrative strands that could have been explored are not.

On the other hand, it’s very interesting – Westhead’s style has been successful and I’d love to see it in action in person – and the parts around the death of Gathers are moving.

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010, Steve James) – 8/10

Steve James remains one of the few filmmakers I am aware of who can involve themselves to a great extent in a documentary and yet still give that film a feeling of journalistic integrity.

Since I was 11 when this happened, I was completely unaware of this. But really hard for an outsider to me to understand how people could think Iverson was absolutely, without doubt, guilty, given the evidence or lack thereof.

But the film is much more interesting than just allowing me to learn about an incident in the life of a famous, trouble athlete and its legacy in his life. It’s about the intractability of racism in the US, it’s about how people create narratives to suit their preconceived notions about the world, and it’s about how the justice system rarely serves people of certain ilks.

Well worth watching.

Silly Little Game (2010, Lucas Jansen, Adam Kurland) – 7/10

This is a very goofy film about the creators of “fantasy” (that is, rotisserie) baseball; how they created it out of the blue, how they turned it into a fad, and how they failed to make money on it.

It’s pretty enjoyable and interesting, though I stress this is a very goofy movie that is not for all tastes. The reenactments should come across as phony, but because the entire thing is so damn goofy, they do not.

I feel embarrassed that I had never thought of where fantasy sports came from before. Also, I agree with the one guy who says these guys should go in the Hall of Fame. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Run Ricky Run (2010, Sean Pamphilon, Royce Toni) – 6/10

This is an interesting documentary about a fascinating athlete who got really short shrift by the US sports media. (But then, how doesn’t?) However, the film is marred by the bad narration, and the personal involvement of one of the directors, who keeps trying to let you know he knows the subject personally.

On the upside, this is as personal as a biopic will ever get, as it’s very, very rare for a celebrity to let someone in this much and to allow the film to be made – rather to give his blessing to it – despite the rather brutal honesty of a number of the interviewees.

It’s worth watching even though the film-making itself is rather clunky.

The 16th Man (2010, Cliff Bestall) – 9/10

This is not a perfect sports documentary – despite having Freeman as narrator and despite the power of the subject matter, the film feels little too much like your typical talking heads/archival footage documentary.

But the subject matter is so powerful that you stop caring about the conventional, paint-by-numbers nature of the documentary. If you have ever wondered about the importance of sports, if you have ever thought that sports don’t matter, that they’re silly, and so forth, watch this film. More than perhaps almost anything else I’ve ever seen, this film captures the power of sports as a uniting force for people of different backgrounds – in this case, people who felt like they were enemies.


Straight Outta L.A. (2010, Ice Cube) – 6/10

This is an interesting story that I was unaware of – like totally unaware of – but unfortunately it’s made by a rapper who doesn’t know how to direct a movie.

Ice Cube has clearly seen a bunch of sports docs he really likes, and he tries his hardest to emulate those films, but he really misses the mark a number of times. He spends too much time as an interviewee, and him and Snoop Dogg have some pretty inane conversations about how cool the Raiders were. He has some really interesting stuff to tackle:

  • the connection between hip music and sports (and marketing),
  • the politics of moving teams from city to city,
  • and, most of all, the Rodney King riot.

And unfortunately he sort of touches on all of those, but doesn’t really dig into them. He seems more concerned with the fashion connection.

And that’s too bad because this is a missed opportunity. It certainly feels like there’s a lot of material here for a great documentary, but Ice Cube is not a filmmaker.

June 17th, 1994 (2010, Brett Morgen) – 8/10

This is a fascinating, ambitious but flawed attempt at putting the OJ Simpson chase into some kind of greater sports context, and perhaps to serve as a document for those people who were not alive to witness this.

Like most people my age and older, I remember this event rather well. What I didn’t remember was how it corresponded with

  • the Rangers’ Cup parade – I had stopped watching hockey the previous year
  • Game 5 of the NBA Finals – I didn’t watch basketball at the time
  • Arnold Palmer’s last time at the US Open – golf is terrible
  • the opening of the World Cup of Soccer – soccer is terrible, but not as terrible as golf
  • and some baseball games – finally something I cared about!

The film does a good job of showing how important this seemed – I can’t tell whether it’s mocking that sense of import or really taking it so seriously. In retrospect to me it is absolutely shocking that they interrupted a game of the NBA Finals to show a car chase, as if the car chase was September 11th or something. (Obviously they couldn’t know that, but it’s incredible the lack of proportion the TV media showed that day.)

And it’s interesting to think of how this changed how we watched TV. Other people have suggested how the OJ chase and trial started sensationalist television in the United States. I don’t know if that’s true, but it definitely feels like it was a major tipping point along the path to where we are now, where non news dominates news all the time.

The film captures a lot of this and would be a masterpiece only it’s a little too self-important – the opening feels like I’m about to watch the most important movie ever – and it’s attempt at artfulness are often slightly more awkward than they should be.

Here’s a nitpick: why do they play with time? These things unfolded in real time so why mess around with the time – sometimes it’s eastern, sometimes it’s pacific. It’s maddening.

The Two Escobars (2010, Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist) – 8/10

This is a fascinating, if a little scattershot, documentary about the infamous Pablo Escobar and the almost-as-infamous killing of a Colombia soccer player.

The film mostly deftly balances the drug and violence problem in Colombia that coincided with (and funded!) the Golden Age of Colombian Football.

The only real problem I have with the film is it’s rather naive acceptance of the US position on Colombia, as if Colombia and its drug cartels were the source of this problem, not, you know, demand in the United States. I understand that this film isn’t about that issue, but a slightly more nuanced approach to the American side of things would have made this already ambiguous film – a film that manages to help us understand why some people in Colombia didn’t hate the drug cartels, or at least some of them – even more ambiguous, as life is.

The Birth of Big Air (2010, Jeff Tremaine)

My initial 30 for 30 white whale.

Jordan Rides the Bus (2010, Ron Shelton) – 7/10

This is a fascinating documentary which, for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, should put to bed any idea that Jordan was “suspended for gambling” during his first retirement.

Honestly, I wished I had paid more attention at the time – this is utterly fascinating. Is there any equivalent in sports history? The greatest player in a sport trying to make it in another sport, that he hadn’t played in over a decade? And the dedication… Frankly, I’m just in awe.

This film isn’t for everyone. If you don’t care about sports or if you have no interest in basketball or baseball, this film will do nothing for you. But it’s an utterly fascinating portrait of one of the most competitive people we have a historical record of, trying to do something and failing.

And despite Jordan’s (deserved) reputation as an asshole, he comes off looking a lot less like an asshole.

Little Big Men (2010, Al Szymanski) – 7/10

This is a fascinating look at a little league team that became the pride of a nation, had the “greatest upset in Little League history” (supposedly) and was nearly destroyed by the attention it got. It’s a great cautionary tale – because imagine what it’s like for kids today – Mo’ne Davis – if it was this bad for them in 1982. It reminds us that, no matter how excited we might get over kids’ amateur sports, these are still children; they are still very impressionable and they don’t have our thick skins (though many adults don’t either). Honestly, I feel for these kids. I wouldn’t have wanted this either.

What should be one of the best of the series is hampered by some really cliche narration – oh science that script is terrible – and this weird decision to put some kind of effect on the digital video, as if to try to make it less obviously different from the Super 8 the archival footage was shot on.

Still very much worth your time, just not quite as good as it could have been.

One Night in Vegas (2010, Reggie Rock Bythewood) – 4/10

I thought this series was about sports…

I am a white male who was born to middle class parents in Toronto in the early 1980s. I cannot, for my life, imagine what it is like to grow up sometimes fearing for your life. I’m sure it drastically affects your outlook on life, your behaviour, and so on.

Unfortunately, this film, which is more about Tupac’s assassination than it is about Mike Tyson’s return to boxing, is not a film that let’s me understand what that’s like. The director doesn’t know whether he’s making a graphic novel or a film – he even admits as much in the intro segment – and he doesn’t know whether he’s telling the story of Mike Tyson’s return to boxing or Tupac’s internal contradictions between the person he wanted to be and the person he was.

I’m sure there’s a powerful film in here somewhere, but this is absolutely not it.

Umatched (2010, Lisa Lax, Nancy Stern)

My second white whale.

The House of Steinbrenner (2010, Barbara Kopple) – 5/10

This is a pretty bloodless and blah attempt to document the mixed (mostly) sad emotions of moving from the old Yankee Stadium to the new one. At times it also feels like it’s about the Steinbrenners.

There are plenty of interviews with people affected by this change, there are the famous clips, there’s talk about how they spend money, but it doesn’t really add up. But they don’t dwell very long on Steinbrenner’s terrible record as an owner before he was suspended – that gets maybe 5 minutes – and the filmmakers seem unsure whether this is about the move, about the Steinbrenners or about the Yankees. It tries to be all of these things and unfortunately that gives us a really unbalanced film that fails to make me care about this move, at all. (That should be the challenge, after all. Making this interesting for non-Yankee fans.)

Very, very blah.

Into the Wind (2010, Ezra Holland, Steve Nash) – 8/10

If you grew up in Canada in the 1980s, you know Terry Fox and his story. He ran the year before I was born, but despite that, I know the legend/myth just like most Canadians my age. Here’s the real connection I have to the story:

This is the view from the memorial outside of Thunder Bay. I apologize for the shitty picture. I didn’t take a picture of the memorial…because? I guess there wasn’t a view…

But I didn’t know the story this well, so this was still a new experience for me. It’s interesting to see how different something like this was before the internet. It’s incredible to me that people didn’t know about this when he started, and it’s also worth thinking about how nothing has really changed – people always want to use things for their own purposes, be it political gain, money, or other things.

I guess because this is such a fundamental Canadian myth for those of us my age, that I was barely able to keep myself together while watching it. (A hangover might have helped with that.) I have no idea if it’s this moving for non-Canadians, but seeing the full story is kind of overwhelming: I’m filled with pride, sadness, and a whole host of other emotions.

The film itself is far from perfect. And that makes sense given Nash and his co-director’s lack of filmmaking experience. But despite some clunky moments – particularly in the early goings, when some of the montages and shots are really, really cliche and/or weak – the story is so powerful (at least to a Canadian) that you really don’t care.


PS Good job Quebec. Way to not fight cancer.

Four Days in October (2010, Gary Waksman) – 7/10

I hate the Red Sox. I mean, I fucking hate them. Though not as much as I hate the Yankees. But I feel like I remember this series like it was yesterday. (But I more remember where I was than the actual moments of the game.) Among the best baseball playoffs I’ve seen in my adult life. (There have been a few that were better in my mind, such as Diamondbacks / Yankees, but not many.) This was a great series and the film does a good job of getting us to understand how incredible it was, in part by focusing on the players, for the most part. Millar in particular seems to have had boundless confidence and it helps that the players documented it themselves.

One huge problem with the film is its self-importance. The opening credits are ridiculous – and rival pretty much only June 17, 1994 in the series for ridiculousness – and the music is often utterly over the top, not to mention cliche, it actually descends into parody.

Another weird thing is the teeny tiny bits of Bill Simmons “interviewing” comedian Lenny Clarke, I guess trying to provide context for those who didn’t watch it, but they’re so brief and so intermittent that’s hard to know why they included them instead of, say, narration. (Well, we know why, Simmons is the exec producer. But still…)

But this is another one of those films where the subject matter overcomes clunky direction. What a great series.

Once Brothers (2010, Michael Tolajian) – 7/10

This is a compelling, moving portrait

  • of what it was like to be from an upstart country in a sport, shocking the world,
  • and what it was like to be an early European player in the NBA,
  • and what it’s like to have your country torn apart by civil war.
  • It’s also a compelling portrait of the loss of a young athlete.

Unfortunately, the narrator is also the lead interviewee, which not only makes the film awkward – from a technical standpoint, how does a narrator introduce himself? – but leads to easy accusations of bias. I have no idea if it’s biased or not, as I didn’t care about basketball until years later, and I am no expert on the Yugoslavian wars. But, regardless, it’s a poor choice to have Divac both narrate and be an interview. That choice undermines what might otherwise have been one of the best films in the series.

Tim Richmond: To the Limit (2010, Rory Karpf)

Another white whale.

Fernando Nation (Cruz Angeles) – 7/10

This is a somewhat awkwardly structured and edited film that still manages to do one of the major things I want from a sports documentary: it makes me wish I was there. I lived through Linsanity, but obviously not in New York. Fernandomania was Linsanity well before Linsanity – and with a better player – with so much more meaning given the terrible events that led to the building of Dodger Stadium.

I would have a preferred a film that explored the social aspects a little more than this did – frankly I think a feature-length would have easily been possible with the subject matter here – but on the whole this is a great story, and the awkward telling of it is easily forgiven since the second half of it really made me wish I had been alive during his arrival.

Marion Jones: Press Pause (2010, John Singleton) – 5/10

This is a real missed opportunity.

From the opening credits, it’s clear that John Singleton is not the man to make this film. I have never been a fan – though I had yet to see his magnum opus when I wrote this review – and the opening credits, which feel like they belong to a melodrama, are the first clue that Singleton doesn’t quite now how to handle this great subject.

We live in a strange world where cheating in sports is seen as worse than extorting pensioners, or other white collar crime. Marian Jones took performance enhancing drugs. To hear her tell it, she may have not been 100% aware that’s what they were when she took them. (Remember, it was the very early 2000s.) But Singleton doesn’t do a very good job of making her case. He inserts himself into the film and more seems to want to tell the story of how Marian Jones impacted her fans.

Jones got an absolutely absurd penalty: she went to jail for 6 months for lying to the government and spent 48 days – 48 days!!!!!!!! – in solitary confinement and there is no doubt in my mind she got the sentence because

  • she’s black
  • and she’s famous.

Yes, she should have been more honest in her initial with the interview, and yes, she shouldn’t have taken them in the first place. But both of those moral imperatives ignore the social circumstances that surrounded her use of performance enhancing drugs and her denial of such use. Namely:

  • the pressure to win,
  • the willingness to do anything her coaches said,
  • the fact that all people lie, and that many even lie to authorities,
  • and of course her blackness in the United States, in a country which continues to treat black people horribly.

Singleton does a pretty piss poor job of dealing with all of this ambiguity.

Instead he tells us she’s a new mom and her husband tells us that she’s dedicating her life to church and family like a good little girl.

A missed opportunity, like I said.

The Best That Never Was (2010, Jonathan Hock) – 8/10

This is a heartbreaking story of missed opportunity that highlights the truly messed up nature of the US amateur sports system.

I know there are far worse stories than this but watching a film like this makes me feel guilty for enjoying March Madness while this bizarre slave labour system posing as education continues to rake in huge profits on the backs of unpaid teenage athletic prodigies.

No wonder kids want to go pro after what happened to Marcus Dupree. I mean, no wonder.

This is my first 30 for 30 episode and after watching this one I definitely want to watch all of them. Good stuff.

Pony Excess (2010, Thaddeus D. Matula) – 5/10

It’s tough to talk about the content of a film like this without talking about the concept of “student athlete” and how the NCAA (and others) have essentially brainwashed the media and most of the United States into believing that it is immoral for “student athletes” to be compensated for the performances that drive the insane amount of money that the NCAA and these universities make. But let’s try to put that aside.

Regardless of whether or not you think the NCAA is a horribly corrupt, exploitative institution, they do create rules, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And, unfortunately, if you agree to play by certain rules, you have an imperative to follow those rules (in most cases).

This is a very in-depth film about the flouting of the rules that allowed Southern Methodist University – a very small school, relatively speaking – to become the best amateur program in the United States. Some effort is made to put this into context:

  • “everyone else” was doing it,
  • and a media war meant SMU was the target rather than another school.

All that’s interesting.

Unfortunately, as someone else has pointed out, this film is too long for the subject matter – or at least it’s too long for the way that subject matter is presented. And I think it’s the presentation that’s the real problem, and it doesn’t surprise me that this man has never made another feature.

This movie is overly edited – at times there are a number of crazy jump cuts per minute and the cuts never really stop – and it’s odd that a style befitting an action film was adopted for a story about “corruption” at a University.

The relentless cutting and the length of the film make it hard to take, no matter how interested I was, and the tale as one of morality, rather than an investigation into the deeper reasons as to why, make it less interesting as well.

Also, any film that relies this much on Skip Bayless for its credibility has problems.

Broke (2012)

9.79* (2012)

There’s No Place Like Home (2012)

Benji (2012)

Ghosts of Ole Miss (2012)

You Don’t Know Bo (2012)

Survive and Advance (2013)

Elway to Marino (2013)

Hawaiian (2013)

Free Spirits (2013)

No Mas (2013)

Big Shot (2013)

This is What They Want (2013)

Bernie and Ernie (2013)

Youngstown Boys (2013)

The Price of Gold (2014)

Requiem for the Big East (2013)

Bad Boys (2014, Zak Levitt)

This is an enjoyable documentary about the ’80s Pistons that is spoiled somewhat by Kid Rock’s narration and the really bizarre introductions of the players. The introductions, and where they film the players, feel really forced. And Kid Rock, who is already unpleasant, says some stupid things.

But otherwise, it’s enjoyable.

Slaying the Badger (2014)

Playing for the Mob (2014)

The Day the Series Stopped (2014)

When the Garden was Eden (2014)

Brian and the Boz (2014)

Brothers in Exile (2014)

Rand University (2014)

The U Part 2 (2014)

Of Miracles and Men (2015)

I Hate Christan Laettner (2015, Rory Karpf) – 7/10

This is an interesting documentary that feels like it kind of skirts around the deeper issues it could have probed. I mean, it discusses race, for example, but it sort of walks around it, just frivolously talks about “urban vs. suburbs” and hip hop was cooler.

And it doesn’t wholly connect to other characters in sports in a way I sort of supposed it would. It’s worth watching, but there is something missing that I can’t quite but my finger on.

That narration script is pretty cliche-ridden.

Sole Man (2015)

Angry Sky (2015)

Doc & Darryl (2016, Judd Apatow, Michael Bonfiglio) – 7/10

This is an affecting portrait of two star athletes who never lived up to their potential due to drug and alcohol abuse. Though it is about the baseball it’s much more about their personal struggles with addiction, one because his father was cruel, the other because his father was too demanding. It’s an illuminating illustration of how addiction affects anyone as Gooden and Strawberry have different backgrounds and had so much initial career success.

My one quibble is how it dances around most of the sexual assault and abuse stuff. It’s addressed, but not well nough.

Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies (2017, Jim Podhoretz)

I forgot to review this! Shit!

Be Water (2020, Bao Nguyen) – 8/10

This is an excellent documentary about Bruce Lee and the larger issue of being Asian in the United States in the mid 20th century.


“Delaney” (2015, Grant Curtis)

This is a poorly made short about an interesting story: a football star tried to save drowning kids even though he couldn’t swim.

From the opening, you know things are bad, when the guy employs faux-static and other overused camera tricks.

The whole thing is basically “Joe Delaney was the greatest.” Now you don’t even need to watch it any more. I just summed it up for you.