TOPart of Test cricket, a hangover from the lonely breaks I spent watching TV at school, I don’t follow any sports. I’ve tried it over the years but never cared enough. However, I have a minor obsession with sports. My loyalty is sports documentaries. The closer you get to that simple definition, the better. I don’t want a sports documentary as a metaphor. I don’t need subplots, criminal, political or otherwise. Just give me fun, edited and mixed with narrative, translated and distilled into human drama.
Done right, a sports documentary can show higher ups and downs than many of us experience in life. There are risks beyond the simple act of competing. Sometimes, it is a stable job or family that someone never had; sometimes it is mental health and the only life a person can imagine living that raises profound social and political questions. It is always passion, pride, character and identity. These are rich portraits of human psychology, especially modern masculinity, as a toxin and a tonic. Here are some of the best.
Last chance U (Netflix)
American football is a sport that many in the UK know nothing about, least of all. I was as snobbish about it as anyone raised in a country where rugby is played. But as both football-centric entries on this list show, its enormous position in the failed socioeconomic fantasy of the “American dream” makes it a quintessential documentary setting.
The first season of Last Chance U is the best. I won’t try to explain why so many talented players end up in East Mississippi’s tiny community college, or the complexities of escaping, but stick with that for the characters and you’ll be highly rewarded.
Five of the 13 seasons of Amazon’s sprawling franchise focus on professional football teams. It is the formula that works best. Each issue follows a different NFL team from the beginning to the end of a single grueling season.
After watching a season or two, you have an idea of how much access the creators did or did not have to key characters and conversations. When the answer to a probing question is, “Turn off the camera,” the display is much less attractive. However, the first two seasons, after the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams, two teams full of charismatic players, are excellent.
Part of the fascination as a UK spectator lies in the sheer scale of the sport. His team meetings are held in huge auditoriums; the colors are brighter than you thought possible; things are marked that you did not know could be. Likewise, the way a team can leave one city (the Rams start their season like the Cleveland Rams) and get to another place in front of huge crowds of already howling fans is unbelievable. But in the midst of all that, there are still people being asked to perform superhuman feats on a weekly basis, and with that all the consequences and drama you could possibly need.
It’s about what makes cricket such a complicated, high-pressure game. By extension, it is about mental health. In telling the story of the England cricket team’s rise to glory between 2009 and 2013, it almost becomes a sports document as a metaphor, but ultimately maintains the correct, delicate balance.
While to non-fans it appears as the most boring and pointless invented sport, cricket, as this documentary illustrates, may be the closest thing of any sport to manifesting humanity’s most impressive abilities and scariest vulnerabilities. Whether it’s hour after hour of laser-eyed concentration, with the relentless hostility of the sun and the mouths of your opponents; the ability to perceive minute differences in the rhythm and movement of a small, very hard ball; or the destructive pressure of the psyche of the hopes of a country on their shoulders, cricket is wild and excellent fodder for documentaries.
Everyone was cooing Free Solo, but wasn’t he a one-trick pony, was that gimmicky porn? Wasn’t his subject, Alex Honnold, as understanding as the spork with which he made fun of his strange meals? The true father of rock climbing documentaries, with heart, emotion and a deep vein of history, is Valley Uprising. Coincidentally, it briefly introduces a much younger and more innocent Honnold, setting him in context as the latest pioneer in a rich lineage of adventurous fans and fanatics.
Valley Uprising portrays the birth and evolution of rock climbing, with a focus on Yosemite National Park, the scale of which is difficult for people from small, gray islands to understand. The creators spent nearly a decade crafting it, interviewing dozens of sports legends. But you don’t have to acknowledge them to fall in love with them or understand the technicalities of their first ascents (with equipment they invented themselves) to be amazed.
With a large selection of Gilliam-style music, archive and animation, it will make those of us who only climb stairs wish that we too could hang ourselves from a 300 meter high rope, barefoot, sipping red wine. In the days of Covid, this is a particularly excellent form of escapism.
Ride the Divide (iTunes, paid) / Inspired to Ride (Amazon Prime Video, paid)
These films, directed by Mike Dion, are about unsupported bicycle racing in the US This sport is known as ultra-distance racing and bikepacking. The latter more accurately conveys his eccentric DIY heart, as well as the intense characters he draws.
Ride the Divide (2010) goes from Canada to Mexico over 2,700 miles, while Inspired to Ride (2014) goes from the west coast to the east coast of the US over 4,200 miles. Both strike the right balance for the viewer in terms of evoking horror and awe. One minute is: “Could never do that, it looks horrible, “the next:” I would love to do that, it looks glorious. “
We suffer and we triumph with the horsemen. Sometimes we wonder if they are unhinged, but mostly we realize that they have a lot to show for what we might all be capable of and why sometimes we go out of our way to prove it.
Inspired to Ride has been even more poignant since the death of British racer Mike Hall in a similar race in Australia in 2017. He is undoubtedly the unassuming star of Dion’s second film and a hero to support.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism