Hollywood often turns to the world of sports for subject matter, but there’s a problem with almost all of the based-on-a-true-story films: The real stuff is a lot more interesting.
Just last year, Ben Affleck was terrific as an alcohol addict who gets one last shot when he’s handed the reins of a basketball team in “The Way Back.” “Safety,” about a college football player who raised his brother in his dorm room, was just as inspiring. But in both cases — as well as running-themed “McFarland, USA” and, probably, the in-the-works Florence Griffith Joyner biopic — it’s hard to watch actors pretend to participate in true-life events without wishing you could see the actual people.
A classic example is “Fear Strikes Out,” where Anthony Perkins’ lack of athleticism makes it seem like Jim Piersall somehow became a baseball legend without learning how to throw a ball. That feeling of inauthenticity often hits home when fictional sports movies close with montages of the real participants, leaving you thinking, “Where’s the footage of them?” (I’m not aware of a Piersall documentary, but I can recommend the fine “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” who played baseball a few years earlier.)
Fortunately, there are quite a few sports documentaries where the footage does exist. Not all sports lend themselves to the documentary treatment; I’m struggling to think of a great nonfiction movie about golf. But, whether it’s the speed of auto racing (“Senna”), the violence of football (“League of Denial”), the survival instincts of distance runners (“Tokyo Olympiad”), or the grace and athleticism of tennis (“Venus and Serena”), gifted athletes translate well to the screen.
Increasingly, sports have become a vehicle for other stories, bringing issues such as gender identity, racism, classism and sexual abuse (last year’s “Athlete A” largely focused on Little Canada gymnast Maggie Nichols) to fans who may not have engaged with those issues without the sports connection.
These days, when athletes such as Naomi Osaka speak out about mental health and even the NFL is belatedly admitting its racism, sports pages are no longer about sports. Or, at least, not entirely about sports. And neither are these outstanding sports-themed documentaries.
“Hoop Dreams” (1994)
Simply put, it’s a masterpiece. Steve James’ account of four years in the life of two Chicago high school basketball players gives you the surprises and heartbreaks a doc can provide only if a filmmaker has intimate access to his subjects. James and his crew seem to have been there for every triumph and setback for William Gates and Arthur Agee in a movie that’s as much about equity, poverty and love as it is hoops. Except for an annoying but brief appearance by sportscaster Dick Vitale, every minute of its three hours is perfect.
“The Heart of the Game” (2005)
It’s another movie where the filmmaker (Ward Serrill) seems to have been on the scene for all the important stuff and where the subjects are willing to reveal their every thought. It’s a dual portrait of elite Seattle high school cager Darnellia Russell, who faces a series of impossible challenges with candor and grace, and her coach Bill Resler, whose off-the-hip comments include this one as his team pursues a state title: “You tell them, ‘Go do A-B-C,’ and they’ll look at you and say, ‘Yes, we’re going to go do A-B-C,’ and they’re excited about A-B-C, and five seconds later you watch them do X-Y-Z.”
“When We Were Kings” (1996)
If you’ve been to the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., how many times did the exhibits make you cry, and why is the answer at least three? Heartbreaking and inspiring moments loom large as you wander the museum dedicated to the inspiring boxer/activist. This portrait of his “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman, in what’s now the Republic of Congo, captures what a huge event it was, featuring music and pageantry. But it’s really about how Ali used the event to focus attention on the people and problems of Africa.
“Training Rules” (2009)
If you were a fan of women’s college basketball in the early 2000s, there’s a good chance you share my disdain for coach Rene Portland, who was loudly booed on the road as it was becoming clear her bigotry was the ugly secret of Penn State’s program. There’s also a good chance you’ll go for this simple but searing series of interviews (viewable for free on YouTube) in which lesbian athletes reveal how the now-deceased Portland damaged her program and killed their love of the game.
Documentaries about athletes who won Olympic gold are a dime a dozen, but “Murderball” sets itself apart because of the recklessness and passion of its protagonist, Mark Zupan. A high school football and soccer star with a major self-destructive streak, he became a paraplegic when he was a teenager, as a result of a car accident. Depression followed until Zupan reluctantly agreed to try wheelchair rugby. He is a natural movie star, and the film captures the speed and thrills of a sport uniquely suited to his particular set of skills.
“Touching the Void” (2003)
Kevin Macdonald made the rare transition from directing docs to major Hollywood films (his most recent was Jodie Foster’s “The Mauritanian”), largely on the strength of this jaw-dropping adventure film. Initially documenting Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ attempt to summit an Andes peak, it becomes an almost unbelievable tale of survival, betrayal and hope.
“Tokyo Olympiad” (1965)
Possibly the most poetic sports movie ever made, Kon Ichikawa’s film alternates between athletes and audiences to give a real sense of what it might be like to have the best seat in the house for the quadrennial event. Always in the shadow of Japanese peers such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Ichikawa’s fiction and nonfiction work is ripe for rediscovery.