There are two ways I evaluate documentaries, my second favorite genre of film behind the movie musical. (1) Is the content compelling? (2) Is the presentation of the content compelling? There are plenty of documentaries that satisfy one and not the other. There are hours of Holocaust footage assembled into difficult-to-watch “documentaries” but that content isn’t presented with any artistry, most likely because it doesn’t require any. Andy Warhol’s docs are studied in film schools for their approach to the form (and Jonas Mekas’ camera work) but try sitting through Empire. Seriously. Try.
When the content and presentation are both compelling we find documentary genius. Usually this kind of work is reserved for artists like Errol Morris, Agnes Varda, Alex Gibney, Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker. It yields films like Harlan County USA, How to Survive a Plague, Grizzly Man and, of course, Hoop Dreams.
And sports have always been a fertile playground for documentary as that last film mentioned proved. Sports lends itself perfectly to reflection, especially when additional insight from those who experienced the game is added. There are game histories; NFL Network’s America’s Game series was breathtaking. There are moments in history; the Bill Simmons-led 30-for-30 series on ESPN has popularized the art form for a whole new audience. And there are high art masterpieces; Hoop Dreams and The Two Escobars are probably the best sports docs ever made because like all great sports movies they are not about sports.
’85: The Greatest Team in Pro Football History, a documentary by Scott Prestin, is a terrible piece of filmmaking (with a stupid title). It is incoherent, boring and endlessly redundant. There is not a single new moment, not ONE piece of new information, in its entire, bloated 1:41 run time.
Skip the film and just watch the video above.
And even those failures would have been tolerable if the film wasn’t so amateurishly presented.
When the legendary stage director Hal Prince adapted the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music for the movies, the equally-legendary film critic Pauline Kael asked in her review if Prince had ever SEEN a movie before. This is how I felt watching ’85. No one should expect Prestin’s first effort to be The Thin Blue Line but it should at least be something one wouldn’t mind watching on their phone will commuting ON the blue line.
- Narration is never established and seems to drift in and out of the film for no reason whatsoever. Narration is a huge choice when it comes to this form. Prestin still hasn’t made that choice.
- Matt Walsh is one of the funniest men on the planet and a true Bears fan. But Matt Walsh makes no sense as narrator for a film like this unless you set-up his stake in the game. But ultimately the voice of this film must sound authentically Chicago, tied to that time and place. Joe Mantegna is in the damn film. Just hire him!
- The film opens with audio from President Obama talking about “changing the world”. I’d argue this is the worst choice in the history of documentary cinema. Obama? Changing the world? This is a documentary about a football team that didn’t even change the NFC! Oh, and Mr. Prestin, if you open your doc on a political note, you can’t just abandon that concept two minutes later.
- You don’t need to identify subjects multiple times. And the title of the film shouldn’t be in their ID chryon. It’s tacky.
- When you do identify them, you should probably leave the name on the screen long enough for an audience member to read it. Matt Suhey’s name was up there for maybe a second. And that’s Matt Suhey we’re talking about. Die-hard Bears fans don’t know what Suhey looks like right now.
- Hire a writer. You’ve got Rick Telander in the picture. Ask him to write some stuff. The narration is written for eight, maybe nine year-olds. Describing Buddy Ryan: “He also worked them relentlessly, like any drill sergeant would their troops.” That kind of writing gets criticized in middle school.
- On that note, why do I need an exterior of Rick Telander’s house? It’s so jarring I literally hit pause. Who the hell cares what Rick Telander’s house looks like? We don’t get exteriors of the Ditka, Singletary, McMahon, Bill Murray locations but we get one for Telander as if a horrible crime happened in that location.
- What is up with the pacing? Slow down. Take your time. Set up themes. Tell stories. This is the kind of documentary made by someone who doesn’t understand that the art of documentary filmmaking truly happens in the editing room. I’m not sure Prestin cut anything he shot, which is odd because so much of what he shot is crap.
- Jeremy Piven: “No one knew Ron Rivera was a linebacker on the team!” First of all, what the hell is Jeremy Piven doing in this film? Second, who didn’t know that? Is the audience for this film people who don’t know anything about the team?
Folks, that’s all in the first half hour. I stopped taking notes at that point. But if you plan on sitting through this picture in the foreseeable future, I will warn you: it does NOT get better. It is a film on cocaine. And just like everyone else I’ve known on cocaine, it speaks too fast, says too little and is ultimately way more annoying than it is fun to be around.
The 1985 Chicago Bears have been exploited for every nickel possible. It’s over. Thirty-two years of nickels is enough. With this cinematic nightmare, the team’s coverage has finally jumped the shark.
If you want a crash course in the 1985 Bears…
- America’s Game from NFL Network (available above) featured McMahon, Singletary and Ditka and was easily the most entertaining film in the wonderful series.
- Rich Cohen’s Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is my favorite book of the last decade. It’s a brand new perspective on seemingly well-worn territory.
- There was a DVD release for the 20th anniversary of the Super Bowl Shuffle that featured an excellent behind the scenes short doc on the making of the song. Worth finding on Amazon.
- Didn’t love the 30-for-30 on the ’85 Bears but the Singletary/Buddy Ryan material was at least NEW stuff.
- Just go watch the entirety of Super Bowl XX RIGHT HERE.