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.