- From uncovering the truth of Russia's state-sponsored doping program to exploring the rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers, these are documentaries from the year that you should be sure to catch up on.
Thirty-six minutes into Icarus, the year’s best sports documentary, its premise is shot. In 2014, filmmaker Bryan Fogel had set out to prove international sport’s anti-doping system was “bulls---” by competing in the grueling Haute Route cycling race, doping himself to the gills for a year under a doctor’s supervision, avoiding detection, then riding in the same race the next year to a much higher finish. But midway through the second race, while enjoying a modest year-over-year improvement from 14th to 11th, the gearshift on Fogel’s bike breaks. He tumbles down the leaderboard, derailed and distraught.
But when he shares the news with his advisor, Moscow anti-doping lab head Grigory Rodchenkov, the doctor responds with clairvoyant reassurance. “It’s a turning point,” he tells Fogel. It’s also the beginning of a much more compelling story.
If you’re at all familiar with the current events surrounding Russia’s state-sponsored doping program—the reason the country was banned this month from the 2018 Winter Olympics—the revelations that follow will not exactly be shocking. The power of Icarus comes from its surprising arrival at that controversy’s epicenter and ability to document the inner sanctum of the mouse-side of a major international chase. By then, Rodchenkov has completed a transformation from an oddball giving hypodermic needle instructions over Skype to a charismatic protagonist, as quick with a joke as he is with an Orwell quote. If his early scenes leave some room for skepticism, his later ones carry the film from its turning point through its second half.
Icarus sought to expose one type of bulls---, and through a series of unexpected events (beginning with Fogel’s initial doping adviser backing out and connecting him with Rodchenkov instead) ran into an even greater, more formidable variety. In doing so, it wound up illustrating the Sisyphean challenge of speaking truth to a power that can assert and create its own. It’s a lesson familiar to Rodchenkov and his literary idol—and one that feels disquietingly more relevant with each passing day.
Also among the year’s best sports documentaries:
Director Pat Kondelis revisits as disastrous a scandal as has ever befallen a college sports program: the 2003 murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy and the subsequent cover-up attempt by then-Bears coach Dave Bliss. Even those who remember the story will be disgusted anew by an assistant coach’s audio recordings of Bliss instructing his players to invent stories of Dennehy’s drug-dealing to tell to police. His goal: evading the discovery of the coach’s own NCAA violations. (One choice line: “He’s dead so he isn’t going to argue with me at all.”) But what really makes Disgraced are Kondelis’s sitdowns with Bliss, who gallingly tries to re-assert the drug-dealing narrative off-camera and squirms when confronted about the inconsistencies of his telling. After its release, Bliss resigned from the job he never should have had at Southwestern Christian University, only to land a new coaching gig in August, at Calvary Chapel Christian School in Las Vegas. It’s hard to imagine that sitting well with anyone who’s seen this documentary.
The story of football in East St. Louis, Ill., is inseparable from the story of East St. Louis at large. Decades spent battered by massive social, political, and economic forces from beyond its banks of the Mississippi River have left the city reeling and verging on desolation; decades of East St. Louis High athletic success has thus offered a common source of pride and, for many of its participants, a potential way out. The understated and honest 89 Blocks — which was, full disclosure, executive produced by SI in conjunction with LeBron James and Maverick Carter—tells the story of the East St. Louis Flyers’ 2016 football season, a pursuit for another state title undergone while coach Darren Sunkett and his players must navigate the difficulties of the city and its effects on one another. 89 Blocks immerses the viewer in the struggle right alongside them.
Tucked into a corner of the Hamptons, amid Long Island’s forest of gaudy monuments to wealth and second-second homes, is a community and a basketball tradition that few outside of it are aware of. Bridgehampton High is tiny (this year’s graduating class numbered 14), predominantly black, and home to a boys hoops program with a handful of state championships dating back to the 1980s. Bridgehampton natives Benjamin and Orson Cummings document a season with the Killer Bees that is at times light and dark and authentic, capturing the contagious joy and unassuming charm of their subjects set against the drumbeat invasion of real estate speculation and economic displacement that has threatened the community and school for decades. Killer Bees feels like a loving time capsule assembled while ruthless market forces knock at the door.
Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies
This sprawling, three-part epic from ESPN and director Jim Podhoretz leaves few stones unturned in chronicling the NBA’s most storied rivalry from Red Auerbach’s acquisition of Bill Russell through the last Magic-Bird Finals showdown in 1987. It also features dueling hometown narrators of which each fanbase would approve: Ice Cube for L.A., Donnie Wahlberg for Boston. And while the ping-ponging homerism that gimmick produces can get a bit cumbersome at times (at one point the two cities’ histories of racism seem framed in competitive terms) it lends a liveliness that might have been lacking in a more neutral, distant tone. More important, the parade of famous talking heads (Magic! Larry! Kareem!) deliver in their reminiscing roles nearly as well as they did on the court. The rivalry—as well as the suggestion that it “saved” the NBA —has been well-tread over the decades, but this treatment places it in a more scrutinous social context that goes beyond simply rehashing classic competition.
What Carter Lost
Rise-and-fall narratives of young athletes can verge on cliche, but in this edition of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, director Adam Hootnick brings to life the saga of a 1988 Dallas high school football team so well that its back half hits with head-shaking sadness as viewers learn where it went wrong for these players. The story centers on that year’s Carter High Cowboys, best known as the juggernaut opponent in the climactic game of the Friday Night Lights movie.
Like Buzz Bissinger’s classic book on which that film was based, What Carter Lost explores the fraught racial, social, and educational dynamics of Texas high school football, as well as the effects of the game’s outsized importance to its stars; ultimately their stardom-inspired delusions of invincibility prove that the boys are anything but. The film is at its best when the team’s now-grown stars and those around them speak with candor and perspective on challenges both externally imposed and self-inflicted. And in a way, it’s good just to see them able to do so.