The 2022 Tribeca Film Festival had more than its share of movie about sports. Here are a few I watched:
Breaking the Ice
Mira is a women’s hockey player in Austria. She’s captain of the Dragons. Or at least she was captain until she got wasted one night before a road game, showed up 45 minutes late, then puked in front of the steps entering the bus.
Mira works on the family farm/winery with her dementia-suffering grandpa, her hostile mother and the ghost of her wayward brother. How things got this way is a story that unfolds slowly as the movie moves along. On the ice she literally has a love/hate relationship with a teammate.
This is a really nicely filmed movie. There are pictures both beautiful and artistic. And I enjoyed the sounds of the hockey, the skates, the sticks, the pucks slamming into the end boards. (It’s Austrian women’s hockey so there’s no crowd noise to overwhelm that.)
Much of what transpires is pretty somber. But ahhh…what a difference a goal makes.
Game Change Game
A sports documentary? Yes, but more so a movie about social justice. This is a movie about the 2020 NBA season. Already a season like no other because of COVID, then George Floyd gets murdered by the Minneapolis police.
The NBA suspended its season in March after one player tested positive. It was the first professional sports league to do so. The others quickly followed. It was some five months later that NBA teams chose not to play in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Again, the rest of the sports world followed.
This is a movie about conscience, played out over the decision to play basketball in a world that is making sport seem less and less a priority. The players, through the NBA Players Association, had to make the decision to leave their families for three months to play in a bubble in Orlando. It was a still harder decision to go back on the court after the Blake incident.
We’ve seen the footage of Muhammad Ali before. Of Colin Kaepernick. We’ve seen the Gerorge Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. We’ve seen the response from white supremacists, the reactionaries and the loser of the 2020 election. But we haven’t seen it before through the eyes of NBA players, a unique element in the story of race in America because of their skill, their wealth, and their visibility. As I watched many of these committed and insightful players I had to remind myself that these are really young guys. Odds are they will continue to be the leaders of the sports world when it comes to those issues that are larger than sport.
You may be familiar with John McEnroe the cynical, witty tennis commentator who is at once both entertaining and insightful. Or, you may remember John McEnroe the tennis player, the tantrum-tossing New York brat who was quick to tell anyone who asked that he didn’t give a shit what they thought.
The filmmakers catch a different McEnroe, sitting calmly in a studio, introspective and basically offering up a verbal autobiography. We also hear from his kids, his wife Patty Smith, Billie Jean King, Bjorn Borg, Christie Hynde and even a quick snippet from Keith Richards and a guitar gig with Carlos Santana. One of my favorite lines, when asked about pot smoking: “Today they do performance-enhancing drugs, we did performance-distracting drugs.”
The first half of the documentary is a McEnroe-hosted review of his tennis career. He talks about his early competitors. Jimmy Connors “taught me you have to be a prick out there.” He envied Vitas Gerulaitis’ nightlife and Borg’s calm demeanor. He never apologizes for his volatile on-court episodes but talks about being stupid and “sabotaging myself.”
1984 is a turning point. After reaching the top of the tennis world he backs off a bit, gets married and has kids. It doesn’t work out with his first wife, Tatum O’Neal, and his tennis career never hits the zenith it did in ‘84. But with a second marriage, to Smith, and more kids, priorities and focus changes.
The movie is long for a sports doc. At times the music seemed a bit somber and the filmmakers seemed to try too hard for the artsy shot. But it’s an interesting story about sports as much as a personal biography of McEnroe. Stars with the drive to hit the heights are usually neither happy nor satisfied when they get there. Give him credit for changing his goal to being a good father.
A movie about the WNBA and the New York Liberty franchise in particular. We see the league’s pioneers, Sue Wicks and Rebecca Lobo and Theresa Witherspoon, and we see lots of highlights of the 2021 Liberty season when the team unexpectedly made the playoffs.
A good part of the movie felt like a team highlight reel, but interspersed with some meaningful issues. From the early years those players talked about what it meant to have a professional league to play in. While that has been accomplished, these players have to play year round and make most of their money overseas. Picture Stephen Curry heading to Russia as soon as the playoffs end so he can pick up a bigger paycheck.
No professional athletes anywhere are as socially conscious and as willing to use their platform to speak out as the WNBA players and we see some of that here. No other professional athletes as a group have been as forthcoming about their identities.
Yet this is a league where a team can make the playoffs and not have access to their home arena because it’s been booked. And this a league where a team like the Liberty once moved from Madison Square Garden to a gym in Westchester County with a 2,000-3,000 capacity. That’s the unfinished business. Elite professional athletes who are still not always treated as such.
As a movie, this documentary sometimes seems a little scattered and disorganized. You have to admire the people being filmed. But all in all, I’d have rather spent the time watching a WNBA game.