Professional sports continue to roll on, mostly in empty, echoing stadiums. The TV viewing experience is odd, often unsatisfying, unless you’re watching your favourite team as a diehard supporter.
But you can’t beat sports stories for comfort and joy. The competition, the triumph of the underdog or triumph of the individual over a society or system that scorns them. Heroes brought low and returning in a great comeback win. That kind of narrative dominates the genre. Here are four jewels, fiction and non-fiction, that sometimes follow the pattern and sometimes don’t.
Diego Maradona (Crave) resonates loudly, given the recent death of the legendary Maradona. That death brought forth realms of appreciation and yarns about his skills and the ups and downs of his career. If you want a taste or a reminder of his stature and of soccer at its most fevered, it’s here in this documentary.
Made by Asif Kapadia, it’s a speedy, heady account of Maradona’s best years as a player – his time playing for Napoli in Italy’s Serie A. It’s all here: the great games, goals and great scandals. It teems with life and is unlike most biopics about a sports legend. That is, it actually delivers a pungent sense of the atmosphere surrounding him. It starts with a car chase and keeps that pace, stopping only to offer incisive insight into the player, the private person and the outsize public persona. Absolutely breathtaking.
United (Acorn TV) is a gem of a BBC TV film from 2011. It’s also about soccer, but there isn’t a tonne of actual games in it. Written by Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, it has one of David Tennant’s best performances. He plays Jimmy Murphy, who was the coach of Manchester United in the period of the Munich Air Disaster – in February, 1958, a plane carrying the team crashed while trying to take off at Munich airport, and many of the young players died.
Murphy was second-in-command to Matt Busby, the manager of what was a very talented young team nicknamed “the Busby Babes.” It was Murphy – he wasn’t on the flight – who had to take charge and pull the team through the trauma and the rest of the season. Tennant plays him with zest, as a down-to-earth man who loved shaping young players but hated the limelight. As a period-piece drama, it’s exquisitely done, capturing the gloom of a 1950s England in which Manchester United were thrillingly charismatic. While the film is anchored in the idea of United and Busby as ambitious, anti-establishment heroes, the production brought the ire of the Busby family.
Icarus (Netflix) deservedly won the academy award for Best Documentary Feature in 2018. A strange journey into cycling and doping, it opens up the world of Russia state-sponsored doping in a way that no amount of reporting can deliver. Filmmaker Bryan Fogel, an American actor, playwright and cycling enthusiast, set out to prove something – that the entire anti-doping process was nonsense.
If Lance Armstrong could fool the system repeatedly, then the system was bogus. Icarus is Fogel’s sometimes bizarre but highly illuminating documentary account of what he did – trick the system – and why he did it. Without knowing it, he cycled himself into the centre of the international controversy about Russia’s doping procedures. And he had the central figure in the huge drama – the fatally attractive, gregarious Russian doctor Grigory Rodchenkov – actually helping him.
Sunshine Kings (CBC Gem) shouldn’t work, but it does. The four-part Australian drama is a blend of orthodox sports story and mystery. Set in Melbourne’s working-class suburbs and among the Sudanese community, its central character is Jacob (Wally Elnour), a teenager on the cusp of basketball greatness and about to play for a top U.S. college team. It’s his friends that are the problem.
An incident involving drugs, a stolen car and serious injury to the daughter of a wealthy white family puts Jacob and his pals on the radar of police. Meanwhile, his local team, the Sunshine Kings, are floundering. Jacob discovers that Eddie Grattan (Anthony LaPaglia), a guy they know as the bitter, angry owner of a sports equipment store, is a former NBA player. Eddie grudgingly agrees to help the youths, but given the aura of crime and suspicion that surrounds them, this cannot be a conventional triumph-of-the-underdog story. This is one moody, gripping drama as much about an immigrant community as it is about basketball.
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