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Welcome Back, "30 For 30": In Praise Of ESPN's Documentary Series

When Will Leitch started Deadspin, his guiding principal—beyond a belief that he could get the whole world to refer to the Arizona Cardinals as the Buzzsaw—was that sports, in the grand scheme of things, aren't that important. Yes, there's lots of money spent on them, and when your team wins the World Series it's the greatest thing ever, but as opposed to the tough stuff—death, love, war—they're the fun diversion that makes the rest of life bearable. Of course, what Will quickly discovered is that writing about sports means confronting all the real-world unpleasantness we'd rather forget: mortality, greed, dishonesty, homophobia, sexism, you name it.


One of Deadspin's best (and most deserving) targets is ESPN, which is the worldwide leader in sports largely by default. They're the biggest, but they're not the best—they're horrible for thousands of reasons that are illuminated on this site every single day. But one of the things they have done right of late is "30 for 30," their series of 30 documentaries that have covered the memorable figures and events in sports from the last 30 years. Thoughtful in a way so much of their programming isn't, these films have managed to do what ESPN often struggles to do: take sports out of their day-to-day minutiae and examine them with insight and a sense of perspective and history.

"Volume 2" of the series starts next month, and the one film I've seen so far, 9.79* (which premieres Oct. 9), follows the "30 for 30" formula so steadfastly you'd assume it would be awfully predictable. But director Daniel Gordon's film about the 1988 Summer Olympics' 100-meter final—the one in which Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson broke the world record and was then busted for doping—played me like a drum. You know how it's all going to end up, and you even know the techniques Gordon will use to stir your emotions. Damn thing works anyway.


I haven't seen all of the first volume of "30 for 30"—you probably haven't either—but we all know how the typical installment in this series works. It tends to be directed by a filmmaker of some reputation (Barry Levinson, Albert Maysles, Ice Cube) who has a personal connection to the story being told. (For example, Mike Tollin's lighthearted USFL documentary was inspired by his time working with the short-lived football league.) The films tend to consist of breezy talking-head interviews filled with impressive names that are intercut with SportsCenter coverage from the period. (Depending on how much the subject matter means to him, the filmmaker will also sometimes insert himself into the material.) The documentaries are delivered in slick, entertaining fashion, hiding deeper societal questions—Do we value success over scruples? What drives the greatest players?—underneath a fun, flashy surface. And they usually wrap up with a sweeping, simplistic "Here's the big moral of the story" ending that you can skip if you've been paying attention up to that point. (It's the weak link of these films but, honestly, a lot of theatrical documentaries do the same thing.)

Since that first volume, ESPN Films has made more documentaries, like the excellent The Fab Five, but they've continued to follow that basic pattern. As with any collection of anything, you've got your great "30 for 30" films and your so-so ones—and not everyone may agree on which ones are which. For my money, The U, Without Bias, Guru of Go, The Best That Never Was, and Pony Excess are installments that I could watch over and over again. They appeal to my nostalgia for the events depicted—whether they're sad or happy memories, I remember them all quite intensely—and the uncluttered nature of the storytelling makes them addictive.


But some of the very best "30 for 30s" have gone against the formula. Director Brett Morgen's June 17, 1994 brilliantly retold the story of O.J. Simpson's infamous Ford Bronco freeway dash by using nothing but footage from that day, combined with noteworthy sporting events that were happening simultaneously. Without voiceover or interviews, June 17, 1994 unfolds like a thriller, presenting the day's events hour by hour as if it's all happening right now, and the result is a film that's incredibly tense—while at the same time suggesting that Simpson's ordeal was but one thing happening in the world on that unforgettable Friday in June. Also against the grain is No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, which was directed by Steve James, one of the men behind Hoop Dreams. No Crossover looks back at the 1993 trial of the then-high schooler, and James (who grew up in the same Virginia community as Iverson) examines how the court case became a powder keg for the racially and economically divided town. A portrait of a city more than it is of Iverson, No Crossover is an incredibly touching, powerful film that uses a sports celebrity's trial as a microcosm for so many factors tearing up America.

9.79* isn't on the level of the very best of "30 for 30s," but it's a good example of why I'm happy the series is back. Gordon takes a backseat to his subjects, the eight men who competed in the 1988 Summer Olympics 100-meter dash. Of course, the main attractions are two runners in particular—athletes who are perfect contrasts in temperament. On one side, you've got Carl Lewis, the brash, motor-mouthed American champion. On the other, there's Johnson, a soft-spoken Canadian who was born in Jamaica and was determined to beat Lewis, if for no other reason than to have the pleasure of shutting him up. Sports reporting tends to play up rivalries and good guy/bad guy narratives, so it's natural that "30 for 30" would do the same thing, and 9.79*'s face-off between Lewis and Johnson is handled beautifully, showing the pivotal races before the '88 battle in Seoul that added such drama to the eventual Olympics showdown. You know how it all plays out, but Gordon's scene-setting—which allows all eight men to explain their mindset approaching the event—is nonetheless riveting, tapping into the visceral thrill of competition and exploring the alchemy of athletic greatness.


If it were just about chronicling winners and losers and telling old stories, "30 for 30" would be fine but not nearly as rewarding as it's proved to be. No, 9.79* (like this series in general) also gets at something deeper: that mysterious hold that sports have on us. They're just games, but, really, they do contain the whole world in them. People who don't "get" sports complain that they're just escapist nonsense. Anybody who cares about them knows better: Sports are another way to think about the issues that make us human. ESPN's endless har-har-har, whoop-whoop-whoop misses that. The films of "30 for 30" understand that to their core.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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