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Film Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya (2017; Directed by Craig Gillespie)

Caustic, fourth-wall-breaking, and unreliably narrated, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is an apt biopic approach to the sordid tabloid tale of American figure skating’s most iconoclastic and controversial figure. Spearheaded by a fiery and spiky but layered and sympathetic turn from Margot Robbie as former women’s singles champion Tonya Harding, who became infamous for her role in a brazen assault on her U.S. skating rival Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics, I, Tonya is a hilarious, scabrous film that cuts deep like a sharpened skate blade and, like its subject, mixes bracing, uncomfortable honesty with clumsy, self-justifying disingenuousness.

Its thesis is that Tonya Harding was a multifarious abuse victim, beat down psychologically and physically by her driven mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her insecure doofus husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), even by her sport’s governing body and its weird, deeply conservative, beauty-pageant-on-ice gender-image assumptions. More than anything, though, it understands Harding as being abused by her country, by its pitiless socioeconomic trajectories, by its wild-eyed, hysterical desperation in pursuit of fame and success, and by its inevitable hairpin turn towards puritanical moral scolding when confronted by a brazen, ambitious fast riser who takes its manifest destiny imperatives all too seriously and besieges its ramparts of class and status with all of the crude self-fashioned weaponry at her disposal. Indeed, Robbie’s Tonya stares down the barrel of the camera at one point and accuses the audience, the ravenous viewing public, of using her, of being just as complicit in her crimes as she herself was, let alone her disavowed idiot operatives.

I, Tonya divides itself between Harding’s personal tumults and skating sequences of kinetic dynamism, showcases of stunning technical and choreographic bravado by Gillespie, his cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, and his Oscar-nominated editor Tatiana S. Riegel (not to mention Robbie, who trained on skates for months in preparation, her skating doubles Heidi Munger and Anna Malkova, and her coach and choreographer Sarah Kawahara). In the later stages, the film is understandably taken over by what is referred to as “the incident”, the hapless Kerrigan caper and its shambolic aftermath establishing infamy for Harding, Gillooly, and Gillooly’s friend and Harding’s sometimes-bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Hauser’s Eckhardt is a ludicrous figure and consistent scene-stealer, a delusional loser living with his parents convinced that he has impressive, clandestine ties to international intelligence agencies and access to a network of secret operators (who prove in the breach to be even stupider than he is). Depending on who is asked about it in mockumentary interview inserts, Eckhardt either went rogue and turned intended psych-out threats into a physical attack on Kerrigan, or this was the plan Harding and Gillooly were making all along. I, Tonya might be criticized for choosing to be ambiguous on Harding’s involvement in the assault and thus absolving her, but its approach feels right, erring on the side of Harding’s self-absolving equivocation and simultaneous excusing and accepting of complicity.

Tonya Harding’s psychology and personal associations are tied into her persistent abuse by LaVona (Janney, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA for the supporting role, is a verbally vicious fireball with a streak of ends-justify-the-means self-righteousness) and by Gillooly by Steven Rogers’ screenplay. She repeatedly says that events as they unfolded were not her fault, but also blames herself for her mistreatment by others, in the commonly-observed way of abuse victims. But Robbie’s incandescent performance, at once iron-hard and heartbreakingly brittle, makes the skater’s experience and perspective compellingly real. Even in a movie like the horribly misbegotten Suicide Squad, Robbie showed a keen interest in women’s experiences of abuse. If David Ayer’s film proved unwilling (or more likely constitutionally unable) to explore Harley Quinn’s deformation of personality and Stockholm Syndrome manic-obsessive investment in her clown-painted abuser, it wasn’t because Margot Robbie was unwilling to do so. That willingness pays dividends here with a character and thematic package that deserves it.

While Harding’s domestic-abuse-ridden on-and-off relationship with Gillooly plays more directly into the collapse of her promising skating career, her relationship with her mother is the more important one in formative terms. Even after Harding cuts ties with LaVona after years of mistreatment (and a last-stray knife in the arm), they each seek the other out once more apiece, but the hint of reconciliation is in both instances a mere pretense, only pursued because they need something specific from the other to get what they want. Every relationship in I, Tonya operates on these transactional, acquisitional grounds (with the possible exception of Gillooly and Eckhardt’s strange friendship, which doesn’t much benefit either of them, ultimately), predicated on fulfilling some requirement that is basically never love.

Harding’s figure skating prowess is tied up in and ultimately poisoned by these abusive relationships and the public-eye glare that results from them, as the film’s depiction of her meltdown during the 1994 Olympic competition firmly implies: her purported skate-lace problem is suggested to be a pretense to disguise the roiling psychological turmoil that she ineffectually attempts to forcibly bury and that truly hijacks her performance (Robbie is tremendous through this entire sequence, carrying the weight of communicating all of these subtle and complex implications). But before she falls apart, skating is her passion and her love, her refuge in the glittering stars from the wearying mud of a painful life. I, Tonya‘s peak skating sequence is its dynamic take on Harding’s skate at the U.S. Nationals in 1991, when she became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition (the movie takes the time and effort to explain why this is a big deal in the context of the sport and even in fundamental athletic-mechanics terms, which is good because I can’t really be bothered). It’s presented as her high-water mark, her signature accomplishment, the best things ever got for her in spite of the worst she had to deal with. It’s meant to be inspiring, and it is, if fleetingly.

But I, Tonya understands figure skating as more than an escape or an outlet for dedication and accomplishment amidst a dearth of meaningful opportunities for Tonya Harding. It’s a conduit for aspirational wish-fulfillment, a fast-track to an exalted plateau of idealized, privileged American femininity for a young woman denied other routes to that promised land by circumstances of birth and nurture. This is keenly symbolized by her father (Jason Davis), unable to afford a real fur coat to emphasize his daughter’s femininity in the milieu of a sport that unspokenly requires such image-making, shooting rabbits to make her a fur coat from their skins (his departure upon separation from LaVona is young Tonya’s first and perhaps deepest trauma).

Robbie’s Harding is abrasive and confrontational, a cussing, drinking, smoking tomboy who attacks the ice with feral energy. This is what she knows from her upbringing, yes, but she also leans into these touchstones of the salt-of-the-earth white working class as a reaction to her lack of access to the upper echelons of her athletic discipline, which are (or were, at least in the period she competed in) defined as much by effective projection of a sort of elite gender ideal as they are by pure technical athletic performance. The latter might be democratically accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic level, but the former is more ephemeral and a function of assumptions of privilege, thus effectively policing the boundaries of access. Harding’s resentment towards the elegant ice-princess Nancy Kerrigan, and thus eventual focus on her as a despised arch-rival who stands in the way of her success, is merely a function of giving this more generalized frustration and resentment a specific individualized target.

I, Tonya is a tad reductive when it comes to the heteronormative imperatives and in-born gaudy weirdness of the figure skating world, probably because that isn’t where its interest lies (the Will Ferrell-led farce Blades of Glory is far more invested in the deeply bizarre insular world of this quasi-sport, even if it can’t always effectively negotiate the pervasive politics of gender projection therein even for comic effect). What it is much more interested in is American women’s figure skating as a stand-in for American society, with its limiting expectations of its competitors as only a slightly cartoonish exaggeration of American social and cultural expectations of women. Tonya Harding does not make for the purest and least problematic working-class countercultural heroine, for sure. But in the hands of director Craig Gillespie and star Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, she’s a lens filtering pervasive conceptions of beauty, class, and conduct that all women, prodigious ice athletes or not, must negotiate every day of their public and private lives.

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Concussion

January 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Concussion (2015; Directed by Peter Landesman)

Football is America’s most popular and grandest sport, and, in many ways, its best ideological, cultural, and psychological allegory. Especially in its professional form as packaged and presented by the National Football League (NFL), American football is a living metaphor for the dominant themes of American life: the rampant aspirational consumerism and capitalist expansion and exploitation of its economy, the racial hierarchy of its society, the belligerent parochial conservatism of its politics, the aggressive militarism of its foreign policy, and the cross-cultural tension between the ruling national mythos of heroic, trailblazing individualism (see the hagiographic glorification of the quarterback position, especially if filled by a white man) and the more pragmatic reality of a collective, diverse effort at progress (it is a team game, after all).

Concussion suggests that the cultural and economic juggernaut of pro football closely reflects another feature of American life: namely, the redirecting and compromising of medical practice, treatment, and research by big-money corporate interests. The film is based on the troubling medical science revelations around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players and the league’s attempts to suppress and discredit the findings that the sport can cause serious brain damage and corresponding, catastrophic psychological effects in those players. It renders the issue in biopic form with Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) as its focal point. As a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, the highly-educated, Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu performs autopsies with a touch both highly personal (he respectfully addresses cadavers by name and asks politely for their aid in uncovering their cause of death before cutting them open) and highly exacting.

Defended and semi-mentored by Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu claims a central role in the debate about brain injury in pro football after he performs an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers all-star offensive lineman “Iron” Mike Webster (David Morse). A civic sports hero, Webster found his mental faculties and life fortunes deteriorating rapidly post-retirement, suffering through homelessness, substance abuse, and self-mutilation before dying in 2002 of a heart attack, aged 50. Over the objections of his Steelers-fan colleagues (Omalu himself, no football watcher, doesn’t even know who Webster is before he was laid on a slab in the morgue in front of him), Omalu delves deep into Webster’s body and especially his brain, which is atrophied on a microscopic but vital level undetectable on CT scans.

Shocked at the level of brain degeneration in a man of only 50, Omalu concludes that repeated blows to the head, a cascading series of “micro-concussions”, during Webster’s football career were ultimately responsible for the destruction of his brain and thus his premature death. Omalu convinces eminent local colleagues and publishes his findings, but finds the NFL’s response distinctly muted. Omalu’s conclusions about CTE become more widely known as several more prominent former players died while displaying similar symptoms of the condition, and the NFL and the football-loving public alike begin to strike back at his disturbing and sport-threatening science with a definite mob mentality. Targetted as much as a foreign outsider threatening America’s game as a doomsaying scientific Cassandra, Omalu is supported in his crusade for truth by former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and together they raise awareness of the risks of CTE in football while never quite denting the gleaming chrome facade of the NFL’s blithe corporate edifice of profit-driven unconcern.

Concussion, written and directed by Peter Landesman, does not honestly strengthen this public affairs story by running it through the Hollywood biopic alteration gauntlet. Far better for you, if interested, to seek out either of the far superior documentary films on the subject: Michael Kirk’s League of Denial for PBS’ Frontline series, or Steve James’ Head Games. Concussion dedicates more subplot time to Omalu’s personal life (especially his courtship with and marriage to Kenyan immigrant and registered nurse Prema Mutiso, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but somehow leaves the viewer with a less-formed idea of the man’s peculiar personality, mind, and singular determination than do intermittent talking-head interview appearances in the aforementioned documentaries.

Smith approximates his subject’s African English accent and indeed seems initially to be on the same wavelength to the real Omalu’s slightly eccentric and flinty volubility; his introductory appearance, good-naturedly interrupting prosecutors to list off his numerous, diverse degrees while offering expert testimony in court, makes keen use of Smith’s boundless natural charisma to sketch Omalu’s own particular charm. But as is too often the case with Will Smith movies, the needs of the drama damp down his light, and his talents are hidden in a bushel of the serious and the grave. Other performances seek not to upstage the star (though who doesn’t love even a middling Albert Brooks turn, truly?), with the exception of Morse as the wildly troubled Webster, but even his steely commitment to portraying the man’s psychological and behavioural nadir without a hint of artifice or vanity unfortunately smacks of hammy scenery-chewing.

Landesman’s film in general hits the key points of the CTE public exposure narrative without any special power or productive artistic risk-taking. It displays a tendency towards compromised safety that might lengthen some ex-players’ lives, if emulated by the NFL, but does it no favours as a public-issue film. Its depiction of the stealthily-beautiful city of Pittsburgh as a depressed post-industrial Rust Belt centre enervated only by its winning football team (Pittsburgh Penguin fans must feel like chopped liver, although to be fair, most of the film’s events take place in the Pens’ pre-Sidney Crosby fallow period), driven home by numerous shots of steel skies and ore-like river waters by cinematographer Salvatore Totino, seems like a dull oversimplification, too. Yet one recurring visual motif does land with impact. Recurrent shots of the Steelers’ enormous home stadium, Heinz Field, squatting on the banks of the Ohio River like a recumbent titan, haunt the film’s canvas. During Omalu’s vital meeting with the prominent local neurologist (Eddie Marsan) with whom he will publish his explosive findings, the yellow-emblazoned stadium is loomingly ever-present in the window of the doctor’s office, as if observing and pre-emptorily judging their insights and finding them wanting when compared to its spatial and popular dominance.

A huge shrine to a beloved sport built with public funds, the stadium is a dismissive spectre that hangs over Omalu’s conclusions, no matter how scientifically provable they may be. It is a concrete embodiment of the NFL’s considerable, unchallengeable economic and cultural capital, which likewise dominates American sports and society, replacing God as holder of dominion over an entire day of the week during its season. Omalu, an immigrant and outsider, comes to conceive of his quest for truth about CTE as a righteous effort to hold his adopted country to the high standards to which it claims to hold itself, standards which drew he and his wife to its teeming shores in the first place. But the NFL’s corporate whitewash of his explosive findings, the leveraging of its power in denial of their factual and scientific basis as a matter of cynical, greedy survivalism, demonstrates different and less-lofty standards for the capitalist exploitation of America’s underclass as quickly-discarded gridiron gladiators. Concussion decides to lean into the inspiration implications of Omalu’s story rather than the hot sociopolitical outrage at the heart of the NFL’s actions. This is a mistake, and it means that the film misses out on a shot at a stronger critique of America’s core metaphorical sport.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Icarus

September 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Icarus (2017; Directed by Bryan Fogel)

Icarus begins as one kind of documentary film and ends up as quite another. Its director, Bryan Fogel, is also a high-level amateur cyclist, and early in the film humblebraggily notes that he finished 14th in the Haute Route, considered to be the premier amateur cycling race in the world. Despite the strong finish, Fogel found that the discrepancy between himself and the top racers was so wide that he suspected that the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) was as rampant in top-tier amateur cycling as it infamously has been in professional cycling. With this in mind, he decides to put himself on PEDs for a year leading up to the next edition of the Haute Route, tracking and documenting his progress and improvement on camera (call it Super Dope Me, if you like).

To ensure his own health and safety as well as to optimize his results and chances of passing anti-doping tests, Fogel decides to work with experienced and accredited scientists. His first choice for consultation, the founder and head of UCLA’s doping laboratory, backs out, concerned about his reputation when it becomes clear that Fogel wants to show how to dope and get away with it. He recommends instead a Russian scientist and the head of Russia’s ant-doping program, Grigory Rodchenkov. With loose morals, voluble good humour, and a suspicious amount of experience in evading doping controls, Rodchenkov puts Fogel on a sophisticated and mildly alarming PED regimen.

Due to non-physically-related setbacks, Fogel finished lower in the Haute Route standings than he did the previous year, despite his program of doping. But along the way he gains a good friend in Rodchenkov and stumbles upon an inside view of one of the biggest and most explosive stories in the long but mostly-shadowy history of sports doping. It becomes clear fairly quickly to Fogel that Rodchenkov knows so much about cheating sports doping controls because it was precisely his job in Russia to help athletes to do so, not to catch them at it.

Rodchenkov soon confides in Fogel and his camera, and later in the New York Times and the U.S. Department of Justice, that every Russian Olympic athlete at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics was using PEDs and that he and his lab worked to ensure that they were not caught. Not only that, but at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia (which were even more awash in steroid use for domestic propaganda purposes after Russia’s weaker showing in 2010 in Vancouver, where drug tests were more difficult to get around), Rodchenkov and his staff worked with state secret police to swap Russian athletes’ PED-laced urine samples for clean ones in the IOC-sanctioned anti-doping lab itself. All of this was done with the clear knowledge and even expressed direction of the Russian Minister of Sport, who answers directly to President Vladimir Putin himself.

Struck by guilt after his team’s work turned Sochi into a podium-finish and propaganda success that Putin parlayed into a power-move into Ukraine, Rodchenkov’s revelations went public as Fogel filmed him in 2015 and 2016, leading to the entire Russian track and field team (and quite nearly all Russian Olympic athletes period) being banned from competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Fleeing Russia and fearing for his life, Rodchenkov is finally put into protective custody and witness relocation by the Department of Justice.

This is a heck of a story and Fogel knows it, but the more thematic framing of Rodchenkov’s perspective on his actions can feel a bit off, even heavy-handed. Rodchenkov is a devotee of George Orwell’s 1984, and the seminal book is quoted liberally in Icarus; the Greek mythology title isn’t nearly as justified as the Orwell connection, which can be patchy of its own accord. He feels that he was like Winston Smith, sunk in the constant pretentious lie of doublethink as he ran a purportedly anti-doping operation while actually running a prolific doping operation.

Icarus makes a belated point, though not a particularly forceful one, that the Orwellian doublethink at the core of Russia’s sports doping system reflects more generally on Putin’s discourse of propaganda and power in his modern Russia. Perhaps Fogel could have made this point sharper without his early focus on his own PED regimen, or his detailing of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s efforts, or his decision to humanize and thus build empathy for Rodchenkov (some left-field animation sequences don’t help, including the surrealist image of a crumpled, seated Rodchenkov with a stag’s antlers growing out of skull). Icarus is a fascinating and strong documentary, but the unanticipated sharp turn that makes its narrative so striking might also weaken its impact.

Sports Documentary Review – 30 For 30 #9: O.J.: Made in America

It’s hard to say what it is about the current American social and cultural moment that has inspired a retrospective burst of re-examination of that mid-‘90s news colossus, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. But there’s no doubting that it’s back in the public view in 2016, over twenty years after its shocking, divisive verdict. First, FX’s furiously-acted, fictionally-tinged, high-drama miniseries, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, aired to critical acclaim and enough Emmy nominations to fill a white Ford Bronco. More recently, ESPN’s prolific sports documentary series 30 For 30 went to air with the troubled, searching, complex, and subtly pained five-part, nearly eight-hour film O.J.: Made in America.

Directed by Ezra Edelman, O.J.: Made in America delves into the life of the football star, actor, advertising pitchman, television personality, domestic abuser, acquitted double-murderer, and convicted armed robber. Utilizing interviews with people whose paths he crossed, court depositions from his various legal cases, and reams of archival footage and photographs,  paints a shaded, deep-cutting, but not unsympathetic portrait of Orenthal James Simpson and his times that emerges in degrees as a Sisyphean (and/or Icarean) saga of tragic proportions. The greater part self-destruction with ample helpings of external societal forces to help it along, Simpson’s spectacular fall from fame, fortune, and grace speaks volumes about a host of endemic American issues, racial and otherwise.

Emerging from a San Francisco ghetto in the late 1960s to become a star running back at USC then in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills and briefly his hometown 49ers, “Juice” (as everyone calls him, whether they are his familiars or not) parlayed his gridiron heroics into lucrative endorsements, television football commentary gigs, and a B-level acting career (most notably in the Naked Gun trilogy of broadly farcical police movie parodies, opposite Leslie Nielsen). One of the first African-American athletes to break the colour barrier of American mass media representation, Simpson scrupulously managed his public image and made every effort to appeal to and indeed to belong in the comfortable realm of white wealth and privilege, a gilded kingdom consistently closed to black Americans referred to by Ta-Nehisi Coates as “the Dream”.

The Juice lived the Dream, moving in the corporate world, golfing and schmoozing with rich white friends, maintaining a fine mansion in Los Angeles’ toney suburb of Brentwood, and even discarding his first (African-American) wife to marry a beautiful young California blonde, Nicole Brown. He fancied that he had transcended race and been accepted by all of America, black and white, not as a black man but simply as O.J.

With the acceptance of white America, however, came doubts from the black community about his commitment to the collective political and social advancement of African-Americans, which seemed to be non-existent. As a prominent black Los Angeleno, his silence on the forefront issue of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – the Los Angeles Police Department’s record of discrimination and violence against black citizens and the justice system’s impotence or reluctance in punishing it – was deafening. While Rodney King’s uniformed assaulters were acquitted and less-remembered shocking cases of miscarriaged justice unfolded, O.J. Simpson palled around with star-struck LAPD officers in Brentwood. Some of those officers even chose to look the other way when O.J. and Nicole’s marriage began to unravel and repeated 911 calls were made to report his recurring physical abuse of her.

Everything changed when Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman were brutally murdered in 1993 and Simpson became the prime suspect. Anyone of a certain age remembers at least the broad strokes of the rest of the so-called “trial of the century” as it consumed the American media for more than a year: the Bronco chase along L.A.’s freeways, Simpson’s all-star legal team and their decision to shoehorn the LAPD’s notorious racism into the trial as a key plank in his defence (and n-word-spouting Detective Mark Fuhrman’s obliging of that narrative), the disastrous pantomime of O.J. trying on the blood-soaked murder gloves in open court (“If they do not fit, you must acquit”, and they did not), and the stark racial divide in the reaction to the Not Guilty plea, with white watchers aghast and black watchers jubilant. The telling in American Crime Story, exaggerated and subtly dramatized as it was, likely covers the totality of the trial and its aftermath more completely, but Made in America’s placing of the trial in the larger context of the defendant’s life and the city’s powder-keg of racial tension, as well as its role in Simpson’s decline after the verdict, is far stronger, more comprehensive, and thematically richer.

The observation has been made, but Made in America draws it out at length: O.J. Simpson worked very hard to be seen as white, or at least as not black, and succeeded as well as could be considered possible in America (Edelman makes time to deal with Simpson’s aggressive pursuit of the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the film version of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, whom he identified with intensely as a black man who refused to limit himself with or even acknowledge the rules imposed on him by either white or black society). Or at least he was a success up until he was arrested for murder, at which point he became immediately and irrevocably black, to his shorter-term benefit but to his longer-term detriment. This was true in some ways but not true in others: the LAPD took a kid-gloves approach to arresting Simpson which they never would have taken towards a non-celebrity African-American, creating the televised spectacle of the Bronco chase, but there is also the matter of Time magazine’s infamous mugshot cover, with Simpson’s face noticeably darkened in a disturbing invocation of the image of the criminalized black male that has buttressed racially discriminatory views and policy in the country for decades.

A common criticism leveled at Simpson’s lawyers – and distinguished, eloquent, flamboyant African-American solicitor Johnnie Cochran in particular – was that they helped their client get away with murder by “playing the race card”. This charge even emanated from inside the Simpson camp, with defence lawyer Robert Shapiro (whose rivalry with Cochran huffed plenty of dramatic oxygen in American Crime Story) repeating the line in a post-verdict interview and adding that the “race card” was “dealt from the bottom of the deck”. What these accusations of the OJ-Made-in-America-30-for-30sleazy and cynical application of the canard of racial discrimination by the LAPD against Simpson on the part of his defence team fail to acknowledge is that the race card was already played in the public mind at least, and therefore unquestionably in the minds of the jury as well. Simpson was being judged as a black man who had murdered his white wife, an unconscious framing that only served to strengthen the prosecution’s already very strong case of domestic violence history and damning physical evidence. Centuries of systemic racism did not simply evaporate in the heat of Simpson’s 100-watt smile. Cochran would have been remiss as a defence lawyer not to seize on any and every strand that might unravel the tightly-woven prosecution narrative of his client’s guilt.

But what Cochran did in that Los Angeles courtroom was more than just that, and Made in America comes closer than any other document of the O.J. Simpson trial ever has to articulating what it was. Although Simpson’s race was increasingly a factor in the public perception of his alleged crime, it was not a discernably active factor in the investigation or prosecution of the murders, despite the sensationalist history of Fuhrman’s bigotry exposed during the trial. It could be simultaneously be true that African-Americans are frequently targeted by the police and railroaded by the courts due to their skin colour and that O.J. Simpson escalated years of domestic violence and viciously stabbed two people to death in a fit of rage (and it is indeed probable that they both are true, given all that we know now). Cochran and his team used the explosive racial issues of the LAPD of their time to inveigle a decisive measure of doubt into the jury and obtain an acquittal for Simpson, but he also used to Simpson trial as a spot-lit platform upon which to display for a captive (and captivated) audience the injustices inflicted upon black people by the white authorities not only in Los Angeles but across the United States.

Cochran’s gambit worked in the moment for his famous client as well as in the hearts and minds of African-Americans: O.J. was found Not Guilty and blacks across the country rejoiced at the rare spectacle of a black man escaping the grasp of a discriminatory justice system. But as the necessitous rise of the Black Lives Matter movement twenty years later demonstrates, the precise issues that Cochran worked to expose in the O.J. trial have not been resolved, improved, or lessened. No one inside the Simpson defence team or in the black community, no matter how activist their mindset, would have anticipated that a Not Guilty verdict would instantly erase the racial bias of police or the courts, but the strategy of that defence as well as Cochran’s provocative rhetoric (comparing Fuhrman to Hitler, for example) could only really be morally justified by its service to the greater cause of increasing black civil rights, of diminishing injustice.

What was achieved with the acquittal of O.J. Simpsons was a moment of cultural catharsis for Black America on dubious grounds. The white majoritarian order did not blink and miss it, and did not forget it (not that it ever needed concrete examples or motives to delegitimize the black liberation movement). Cochran, the black leaders of L.A., and African-Americans across the U.S. worked for and then celebrated Simpson’s acquittal, but the victory was fleeting and may have done more damage to their cause than the feeling of triumph was worth. The freedom of a famous black athlete with few connections to the community or its politics and a high likelihood of guilt for a double-murder is one hell of a hill to choose to die on.

But the O.J. Simpson case is much knottier and more problematic in its racial implications. Many white Americans, persuaded of Simpson’s guilt by the weight of the evidence as well as by their own prejudices (disavowed and otherwise), seized on Cochran’s “race card” courtroom strategy as a cynical exploitation of the spectre of racism and extrapolated it to apply to the entire continuing African-American civil rights project. Beyond the Simpson case, the awareness of discrimination and political prominence of black rights issues in the early ’90s found little purchase in terms of concrete social progress. Police departments across the country, perhaps chastened by the LAPD’s lack of reward for their rare caution and diligence in dealing with such a high-profile African-American suspect, ramped up racial profiling in inner cities and increasingly militarized their forces even as urban crime steadily declined.

America, too, had a long, slow punishment in store for O.J. Simpson, Not Guilty verdict notwithstanding. His endorsements evaporated, his ties to respectable corporations were severed, his revenue streams dried up. The family of Ronald Goldman won a civil suit for wrongful death against him, and capitalized on his questionable decision to have a cash-in semi-confessional book ghostwritten, If I Did It. His Brentwood mansion was sold, his possessions scattered, and his fame tipped into infamy. O.J. did not make much of a distinction between these two similar but sharply divergent states, and his clean-cut, suburban-friendly grin became a seedy leer. In the company of porn stars, two-bit dealers, and other unsavoury hangers-on in Florida, the once-proud Simpson became a garish self-parody as he flirted with a bad-boy image that he had diligently worked to avoid for years. A relapse into criminality seemed inevitable, and when Simpson led a chaotic armed robbery of a memorabilia dealer that he felt had stolen from him, the justice system that he had thwarted and humiliated threw the book at him.

Now incarcerated in Nevada for a 33-year sentence (the severity of which seems incommensurate with the severity of his crime, if the account provided Edelman’s film can be believed), O.J. Simpson stands as a case study in the American pursuit of the Dream and the dark underbelly of sunny image-crafting. The Made in America portion of Edelman’s title is vital: O.J. Simpson took advantage of the opportunities afforded to him in America, but America demanded a price from him, too. Its racial politics allowed him a singular place in the sun for him for a time, but ranks closed when matters became serious. The system worked for him until he exposed some of its core faults, and then it lowered the boom in response. Fame and fortune made O.J. Simpson more than he was, but they could not help him overcome his base impulses and personal faults and could not fully shelter him from their consequences as they might have for a white man. America made O.J. Simpson, and it unmade him. His grand tragedy, though it is very much of his own making as well, lays bare many fundamental truths about what America is at its core. But no conclusion or message in O.J.: Made in America is easy or simple, and preserving the saga’s troubling complexity is the finest accomplishment of Ezra Edelman’s sprawling opus.

Film Review: Red Army

November 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Red Army (2014; Directed by Gabe Polsky)

In the Soviet Union, world-class athletes were trained and drilled relentlessly to best opponents from Western democracies on the field of play and to therefore demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet system and way of life to decadent capitalism. These practices resulted in dominant teams headed by generational players that dominated international competitions with a fluid and skilled style of play. But behind the scenes, the sporting heroes on these teams were controlled tightly by state agents, bullied and mistreated by their imperious coach, and even under glasnost and perestroika in the late stage of the U.S.S.R. under Mikhail Gorbachev were threatened with reprisals once they departed their state-controlled Russian teams for the professional leagues in North America.

Gabe Polsky’s Red Army tells this story of Soviet sport in the context of ice hockey and particularly through the perspective of legendary defenseman Slava Fetisov, but it’s very similar to the much richer version of the same narrative related in The Other Dream Team, a superb 2012 documentary on the Lithuanian national basketball team’s emergence from behind the Iron Curtain after serving as the Soviet national team through the 1980s. Considering hockey’s much greater importance in Russia in relation to basketball, Red Army ought to be the better story in this particular vein. But perhaps due to its importance, and/or to the integration of its subject with the Soviet-revivalist government of Vladimir Putin (Fetisov is now his Minister of Sport), it’s oddly less compelling.

Fetisov is at the core of Red Army, and though his English is essentially fluent, he proves to be at once reticent and unreflective on his days as a key member of the remarkable Red Army hockey club which amazed international competitors and spectators through the 1970s and 1980s. His memory has not faded, and he and other appearing interviewees (including his teammates Alexei Karpovtsev, Vladislav Tretiak, and Vladimir Krutov) provide Polsky with enough narration to move the film forward. But Fetisov possesses the bluntness of a hockey player (who surely have the most neutered imaginations and most cliched utterances in the whole constellation of jocks) combined with the secretive caution of a political figure in a dangerous, corrupt, and distrustful regime where reprisals are not uncommon (I speak of Putin’s Russia, not that of the Soviets, although living in one would serve to prepare you for the other).

Polsky chooses to include this aspect of Fetisov’s nature in Red Army, editing in footage of his subject staring intently at his smartphone while Polsky asks him questions, which he then brushes off casually. Polsky himself doesn’t come across as a terribly insightful or penetrating interviewer in the snatches of his questions that are heard, although he must have been to obtain the information necessary to craft the film, which is reasonably well-made and has the backing of heavyweights Jerry Weintraub and Werner Herzog as producers. Polsky proves adept at culling archival footage, however, intercutting classic game footage of Fetisov and his teammates with Red Army and later the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings (he did finally make his way to the NHL, although much of his salary went back to the coffers of the Politburo in Moscow) with Soviet propaganda broadcasts, Don Cherry trashing Russian players, current Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin shooting pucks at Russian nesting dolls filled with Russian salad dressing, and a young William Shatner dancing through the aisles of a Canadian supermarket ad.

Red Army is not a poor documentary by any means, but it isn’t one of the best you’ll ever see either, with apologies to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg. As a document of life under the yoke of communism and how the triumph of national sports played into it (circuses rather than bread, etc.), it leaves much to be desired. The film has a better mind for the differences between the style, tactics, and culture around hockey in Russia as opposed to North America’s smash-mouth version than it does for wider cultural or societal divergences.

But Slava Fetisov’s ingrained reluctance to indulge in much glasnost with regard to the Soviet system’s deeper character, as opposed to the interpersonal meanness of longtime Red Army head coach (and KGB flunky) Viktor Tikhonov, transfers to Polsky’s film. If Fetisov reserves judgement on the nature of life in the Soviet Union (possibly for political reasons), then Polsky politely echoes that tendency. But also like Fetisov, Red Army straddles a fine line between nostalgic appreciation for the hyper-skilled, aesthetically remarkable hermetic hockey of the Soviets and an appreciation of the authoritarian iron fist that lurked behind it.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews, Sports

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #8: Hillsborough

August 2, 2015 Leave a comment

In April 1989, 96 football fans died in a crush of overcrowded terraces at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield during a FA Cup semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The worst sports disaster in English history and one of the deadliest football-related incidents anywhere ever, the Hillsborough disaster is many things beyond a horrible and unnecessary tragedy.

It is a dark landmark in professional football in England, a predictable outcome of reactionary crackdowns after a hillsboroughwave of hooligan violence around the game during the preceding decade. It was a catalyst for drastic change in the upper echelons of the sport in the country of its inception, an important impetus behind the corporatization effort that lead to the formation of the Premier League in 1993. It became a core element of the supporter culture of Liverpool, whose fans suffered not only death and injury but the subsequent slander of a concerted, media-supported campaign to pin the awful consequences of police crowd mismanagement on the club’s (supposedly) drunken hooligan fans. It had a painful personal cost for the families of the dead, who lost loved ones and then suffered through two decades of protracted, agonizing struggle to hold the authorities responsible for their negligent failure to protect the public safety.

Daniel Gordon’s ESPN 30 For 30 film Hillsborough, one of the few feature-length entries in the sports documentary series’ Soccer Stories imprint rolled out in advance of the 2014 World Cup, depicts all of these elements of the disaster with gravitas and detailed alacrity. But it also finds in Hillsborough the crumb trail of a euthanized society, a failed regime of public order in England in which the privileged power of institutional continuity consistently trumps individual rights and security. Hillsborough was a tragedy that only deepened due to a police cover-up that eventually reached to multiple institutional levels. This scrubbing-up effort encompassed same-day narrative shaping, investigations by police and the coroner in the immediate aftermath of the disaster that emphasized blood-alcohol levels and shifted responsibility onto the mob itself, alterations and falsifications of police statements that were critical of command decisions on match day, and long-lasting refusals by the national government to dig into the scandal around Hillsborough. Only recently, with a new independent inquiry in 2012, has the truth of the mix of institutional mismanagement and evidence alteration come to wider light in Britain.

Director Gordon also made 9.79*, one of the stronger 30 For 30 films that also dealt with a system of corruption and backroom shadowplay. Hillsborough is grounded in much more sober stuff than blood doping in sprinting, however. Without a narrator, Gordon weaves together archival footage, specially-filmed geographical orientation material at the stadium, and gripping interviews with police officers, families of victims, and other figures close to the event to tell a powerful story. His narrator-proxy is Professor Phil Scraton, a criminologist whose eloquent, concise crusading for a re-evaluation of and new investigation into Hillsborough was vital to the formation of the independent panel of inquiry (on which Scraton served). This is a compelling documentary film for the football fan as well as for the sports neophyte.

What is striking now about Hillsborough is how obvious it seems that something terrible like it would happen, and indeed that it took so long until it did. The disaster was a dark prologue of Thatcherite Britain, the inescapable conclusion of a broken society that, as the Iron Lady would have it, did not exist and ought not to. Crowd control and event policing in 1980s English football had become so obsessive about curtailing violence and isolating hooligans that it endangered mainstream spectators, which were always the vast majority. Combine the metal barricaded pens in the stands with distrustful, disdainful policing that assumes criminality and catastrophe is almost inevitable. Coming at the end of a long period of welfare state rollbacks and pitiless union-busting, Hillsborough was another blow to ordinary Britons by Thatcher’s Conservatives that, for all of its inadvertence, landed very painfully nonetheless.

Film Review: Happy Valley

Happy Valley (2014; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)

On a football field in the middle of a stadium filled with 100,000 spectators, men kneel as they are lead in prayer. It is moments before the start of a historic NCAA football game at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pennsylvania, the first Nittany Lions home game in nearly half a century not to be coached by the legendary secular saint of the college game and the local pope of the symbolic diocese of football fanatics, Joe Paterno. With the university reeling from child molestation charges levelled against his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, Paterno was judged complicit in the enabling of Sandusky’s crimes (or at least deficient in their detection and prevention) and removed from his longtime post amid a national media firestorm that shook the Penn State faithful’s communal self-conceptions to their very core.

But nothing may stop the onward march of the inexorable mass ritual of college football. One might as well cancel a Penn State home game as brazenly burn a medieval town’s cathedral to the ground: the complete apocalypse of the local infrastructure of collective meaning in either case would be entirely equivalent. And so the game is held against rival Nebraska, with overt attempts to render the occasion as a popular healing exercise highly conspicuous, a transparent thrust at turning the page from a feeling of mass shock and shame for a stadium full of acolytes.

Thus, at this most American intersection of violent athletics and faith (football as religion, religion as football, both so mutually miscegenated as to be genetically indistinguishable from each other) as the locus of collective identity, players from the Penn State and Nebraska teams cluster into a prayer huddle. The congregation leader is Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown, whom we are informed is a radical Christian conservative with publically-expressed anti-gay views. Demonstrating his evangelical preaching tendencies, Brown tells the gladiators arrayed around him that in front of TVs across the nation, young boys gaze on, enraptured. He says that these impressionable boys want to know what manhood looks like, and they’re observing a fine example of it at that moment.

In Amir Bar-Lev’s remarkable documentary film Happy Valley, Brown’s framing of this seminal event in the history of the community’s and even of the nation’s understanding of the nature of masculinity takes on a depth and breadth that he could not have fathomed when he uttered it as a manly, rah-rah subcultural rallying cry on the field of Beaver Stadium in the fall of 2011. Happy Valley is profoundly about what manhood looks like in contemporary America, and it’s not a remotely flattering portrait. It’s a document of the consequences of unchecked patriarchal authority in an isolated social and cultural system, of the sublimated aggression and popular anger inherent to college football culture, and of the damaging, sociopathic perversions that those men in positions of power in such a structure can carry out under its protections.

Bar-Lev has been involved in some notable social-issues documentaries, including as co-producer on the slice-of-life Hurricane Katrina narrative Trouble the Water and as director of The Tillman Story, but Happy Valley is his most fully-formed and layered statement as a documentarian. His camera catches the discomfort of the intractable social conflicts that stem from the scandal, such as a protestor holding a sign denouncing Paterno’s failure to decisively act to end Sandusky’s crimes when they were brought to this attention next to Paterno’s on-campus statue. He gets into tense confrontations with fans and tourists taking their picture next to the likeness of Joe Pa, the incident acting as a narrative preface in the film for the eventual removal of the statue and commemorative site entirely.

Despite the initial strong reaction of the university to the damaging scandal, the campus and the community did not take long to circle the wagons, especially when the levying of heavy sanctions against the university by the NCAA gave them an outside oppressor to feed into an inflated sense of persecution. Happy Valley provides a decent account of Sandusky’s crimes, as well as his exposure and eventual conviction. But the film is much more concerned with Joe Paterno and the cult of personality he inspired in State College and its surrounding region, a cult that is shaken but never collapses. It’s a powerful portrait of a community’s almost unconscious labours to quarantine off any lingering sense of guilt rather than confront and reform the system that allowed terrible things to happen, to save the corpus of their collective identity by amputating the sources of shame like gangrenous limbs.

A living saint in his late years not only for his success on the field but for his philanthropy and focus on the academic performance of his players, Joe Paterno was depicted in a mind-bogglingly bathetic college town mural entitled “Inspiration” with a literal halo around his head. The artist, Michael Pilato, paints the halo out shortly after likewise removing Sandusky’s image from the mural, a highly ironic erasure given the complaints made in the film by Paterno’s biographer about the rewriting of history after the NCAA vacated all of Paterno’s wins with Penn State over his last 13 years with the team (a punishment that was later reversed). Paterno died of cancer a mere two months after being removed from his Penn State head coaching job and the shame of the scandal’s revelations, as if he could not live without his team or his community’s adulation.  Bar-Lev shows us vivid instances of that adulation on a mass scale, expressed in the thunderous roar of the stadium crowd, the chanting choruses of rally after rally in support of Paterno, and in the violent rage of the campus riots that followed his dismissal. He also shows Pilato symbolically sealing Paterno’s public redemption by painting a white rose into the late coach’s hand on the State College mural.

Happy Valley is less rosy about Paterno’s legacy. His family pays a quack psychologist a handsome fee to spearhead a public relations campaign to absolve not only Paterno but the entire community of complicity in Sandusky’s serial molestation (to summarize: no one could have known anything because Sandusky was an evil supergenius, of course). But Bar-Lev highlights the evidence in court documents and independent inquiries that Paterno did not merely report word of Sandusky’s misdeeds to his superiors at the university rather than to the police, but highly suggestive references to the coach’s role in discouraging the administrators from bringing in the law. And there is no easy redemption for Sandusky’s adopted son, who went public about his father’s abuse of him in support of the man’s other victims and was ostracized from the family as a result.

Such lingering reminders of shame are easily-spackled cracks in the gleaming facade of a college football culture, however. Traditional conceptions of patriarchal masculinity are destabilized briefly before being carefully shored up. The imperatives of collective identity, which always already support the patriarchal power structure, must be maintained at all costs. Happy Valley offers a compelling portrait of what manhood looks like in the preserved conservative heartland America co-built by men like Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky: exploitive of the weak, hagiographic of their exploiters, buttressed by belligerent groupthink and feel-good bromides and by the blazing light of mass sports spectacle. A scrupulously-maintained fantasy that obscures a dark reality.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews, Sports