Reviewing ‘Pony Excess’ and ranking ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ documentaries

12.11.10 7 years ago 50 Comments


It seems hard to believe, but by my count, Thaddeus D. Matula’s “Pony Express” will be the 30th and final film in ESPN’s ambitious “30 for 30” documentary franchise when it airs on Saturday (Dec. 11) night.
Bill Simmons has already announced — via ESPN Chat, naturally — that “30 for 30” will continue in some form, not as a regular series, but as a brand attached to certain documentaries that match the franchise spirit. [Perhaps that will include Alex Gibney’s film about Steve Bartman and scapegoats in sports, which was delayed and ultimately bumped out of the “30 for 30” rotation.]
Maybe “30 for 30” hasn’t *quite* lived up to what I hoped its potential might be when I got the first four screeners in the mail last year. But maybe my expectations were raised too high? A slew of corporately produced, anonymously directed installments near the homestretch seemed foreign to the objectives of a series that also employed names like Barry Levinson, Ron Shelton, Steve James, Albert Maysles and Barbara Kopple. And then one of the series’ biggest names — Oscar nominee John Singleton — deposited the series’ one *true* stinker, a love letter to Marion Jones that canonized a marginally repentant cheater.
In the balance, though, this was a pretty great thing ESPN did, yielding a high volume of well-made, discussion-worthy sports documentaries into a marketplace that definitely had an appetite for such things.
Part of me wishes that “30 for 30” could have wrapped up with “The Greatest That Never Was,” closing on a peak. “Pony Excess” is middle-of-the-road stuff. But as with the rest of the the middle-of-the-road “30 for 30” films, it’s still worth watching.
Click through for a brief review of “Pony Excess” and then my rankings for the “30 for 30” documentaries…
As delivered by Matula, “Pony Excess” is a sort of Franken-doc splicing together bits of “The U” and “The Best That Never Was,” with hints of several other “30 for 30” docs mixed in.
Like “The U,” it’s a story of a football program that exploded in the ’80s with a flashiness that paralleled the flashiness of its home city (“Dallas” star Patrick Duffy even narrates). And like “The U,” it’s a story of a football program gone astray. And like “The U,” it’s ultimately a somewhat forgiving story of an underdog program that threatened The Big Dogs and thus received attention and punishment — NCAA’s Death Penalty — that went beyond what the infractions deserved.
Like “The Best That Never Was,” it’s a portrait of the lure of Big Time College Football in the ’80s, specifically of unscrupulous boosters and recruiters and the “student”-athletes who benefited and suffered from their “Win At Any Cost” ethos.
I happen to prefer personal stories over institutional stories and while “The Best That Never Was” was ultimately a very human and personal story, “Pony Excess,” like “The U,” is completely institutional. Matula trots out an impressive array of talking heads close to the program at the time, including stars like Eric Dickerson and Craig James, plus a number of boosters and coaches. Everybody is coy and giggly about how that was a Wild Wild West period where cars and money were being thrown around like crazy, if you were waiting for anybody to say, “Yeah, I was getting $50,000 a year” or “Sure, I gave Dickerson a TransAm,” nobody wants to be that candid and the documentary suffers.
The documentary also suffers from a dully linear approach to the story, which jams a lot of facts and interesting information into 100 minutes, but never quite finds an angle. Every once in a while, Matula makes a point that sounds provocative and worth pursuing, but he’s on to the next thing in no time. Personally, I’d have preferred to see an “All the President’s Men”-type story about how the proliferation of newspaper/TV media in Dallas at that particular moment left SMU in the crosshairs for a wave of hungry journalists. And if the thesis of the doc was *actually* that SMU got punished out of proportion for doing what everybody else was doing, I’d sure have loved to leave SMU for a while to focus on other infractions at other schools and maybe to get a single NCAA official as a talking head. [A commenter notes that Dan Beebe *was* interviewed in the film. My inability to remember him or to have even noted his presence in my notes probably means he had mighty substantial stuff to say.] Really, I would have loved many things more than this strictly chronological approach with a grafted-on happy ending featuring June Jones as SMU savior. 
And yet? “Pony Excess” is completely engaging and I learned things about the SMU scandal that I didn’t know, so I’m perfectly happy that ESPN gave somebody room to tell the story, even if they did it in the most straight-forward way possible.
Now, because I’ve got a few minutes, let’s run through the full list of “30 for 30” films…
Three Films I Missed: “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” (my DVD took a trip to Chicago before I could watch… eventually I will see this one… Steve James is an excellent documentarian…), “The 16th Man” (Yeah, I saw “Invictus”…) and “The Birth of Big Air” (my DVD vanished into… um… Big Air?).
27) “Marion Jones: Press Pause” – We get it, John Singleton. You love Marion Jones. Ick. This awful short film left me feeling truly unclean. Some of the “30 for 30” films were unfocused. Some were excessively conventional. Some were disappointing. This is the only one that I’d say was really BAD. That’s a pretty good track record.
26) “Jordan Rides the Bus” – This was my most anticipated doc in the whole series and my biggest disappointment. How could the director of “Bull Durham” have made a film that says so little about the minor league baseball experience and how it changed and was changed by the 20th Century’s most popular athlete?
25) “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” – Probably the least focused of all of the “30 for 30” docs. Director Mike Tollin had access to a dozen great stories and gave two or three minutes to each. The film is entertaining, but only because the subject matter is entertaining.
24) “Guru of Go” – Conventional and meandering. But not awful, just no better in 45 minutes than the inevitable LMU tribute clip packages ESPN runs every April at NCAA Tournament time. The footage of Hank Gathers collapsing slays me every time. 
23) “Without Bias” – Kirk Fraser made his Len Bias film as a feature. Then, without finding distribution, he gutted it to 50 minutes for ESPN. You can feel every painful cut weakening and negating the story, which gets to its conclusion and proves a thesis that somehow got edited out of the movie. But if you already know the story, it works decently…
22) “The Legend of Jimmy the Greek” – The voiceover is bad, very bad. But the story of Jimmy the Greek is a good one and it’s solidly told. The *worst* thing that can be said about this one is that it’s a conventional ESPN doc of the old breed.
21) “Run Ricky Run” – As portraits of athletic eccentrics go, this one is nicely open-minded, but not particularly revelatory. Confession: I’d completely forgotten I watched this one and threw it into my DVD player and I was 20 minutes in before realizing there was a reason it all felt familiar. Not a great sign.
20) “The House of Steinbrenner” – There’s something unseemly about Barbara Kopple, whose “Harlan County USA” is one of the greatest Stand Up For The Little Man films in all of cinema history, taking such pleasure in Standing Up For The Big Man. The Yankees are not and were not underdogs, so attempting to wring sympathy for the overdogs is a white-washed mess. There’s no directorial stamp or voice here at all, a huge disappointment from Kopple (whose literal voice is heard asking a few banal, ass-kissy questions). Yup. That sure is a nice, expensive new ballpark (except where it isn’t). In the balance, it’s still probably a better movie than “Four Days in October,” but this Red Sox fan isn’t ashamed to admit he plays favorites. 
19) “Four Days in October” – Ranked this high 100 percent because I’m a devoted Red Sox fan and the footage from 2004 invariably makes me tear up. As a documentary, this MLB-produced clip-fast is made without an iota of inspiration or artistry. 
18) “One Night in Vegas” – Some of the interviews are interesting and passionate, but the attempts to link Tupac and Mike Tyson thematically are strained, however appropriate they may be. This film needed more time and more effort to justify what it tried to sell.
17) “Unmatched” – The contemporary access to Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova is terrific. The filming, editing and soundtrack choices, though, make this much more of a Lifetime Original Documentary than a ESPN doc. Two of the greatest tennis players ever and most of the movie is the two of them sitting in the kitchen? Bah. The driving footage, with piano backing, is hilarious.
16) “Tim Richmond: To the Limit” – This NASCAR-sponsored film was by-the-numbers and probably insufficiently inquisitive, but it fulfilled a basic and desired service: Tell me a story I don’t know and keep me interested throughout. Somebody needs to make a scripted biopic starring Danny McBride as Tim Richmond.
15) “Straight Outta LA” – Lots of quirky, eclectic interview subjects spice up a somewhat dully told version of the great story linking the Raiders to Los Angeles to West Coast hip hop. Ice Cube is a fine storyteller on camera and in his writing and rapping, but he’s not much of a filmmaker or documentarian.
14) “Fernando Nation” – Most of the history — both the history of Latino relations in LA and of Fernando Valenzuela’s rise to fame — is familiar, if you happen to be a baseball fan or to have read your James Ellroy, but the tale is solidly told, with insightful talking heads and, of course, Fernando’s participation. The story is told abruptly — “Fernando Nation” was a late addition to the franchise — but timely. I wish it had played the timeliness card a bit more heavily.
13) “The Pony Excess” – See above. 
12) “Into the Wind” – Simple. Conventional. Effective. It loses a lot, though, if you already know Terry Fox’s story, which has been told in more depth in a number of different forums. 
11) “Little Big Men” – If not for the AWFUL narration, this one might have ranked even higher. The idea of looking at a team of Little League Champions three decades later is simple, but instantly powerful as we see the lives of people who achieved every dream at the age of 12 and then had to go right on living.
10) “Silly Little Game” – The “30 for 30” series told a lot of different stories, but you had very few instances of filmmakers playing with the format and experimenting with storytelling. Did I love the reenactments in this fantasy baseball effort? No. But I did love that directors Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen took the risk that few of their colleagues took.
9) “The U” – If you’ve seen Billy Corben’s “Cocaine Cowboys,” you’ll recognize a similar cake-and-eating-it-too approach to the Miami Hurricanes football program. Sure, the Canes were utterly out of control, a gang of lawless outlaws, but they were talented, larger-than-life outlaws, American Outlaws. So on one hand, it’s a cautionary tale, but on two other hands, it’s all about hero-making. Still? A whole lot of fun to watch.
8) “Once Brothers” – Either slightly too long or slightly too short, “Once Brothers” is still educational and entertaining in equal measure.
7) “King’s Ransom” – You’ve just gotta have an angle. Peter Berg knew that making a doc about Wayne Gretzky would be too difficult, but that making a doc about Gretzky’s move to Los Angeles might be just focused enough. It’s a revelatory story about the nature of contemporary sports though the prism of one trade and the regret on Gretzky’s face today makes the whole thing worthwhile.
6) “June 17, 1994” – I’m not sure Brett Morgen’s doc really makes its case regarding the importance of the title date in sports history, but its fly-on-the-wall, channel-surfing aesthetic is one of the most franchise’s most innovative and most successful.
5) “Muhammad and Larry” – The sad counterpoint to the Oscar-winning “When We Were Kings,” “Muhammad and Larry” showed what decades of being the Greatest of All Time did to Muhammad Ali and what decades of being underappreciated have done to Larry Holmes. The story is told in revelatory Maysles style and the result is heartbreaking.
4) “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks” – Saw this one at the end of a long day of ponderous Sundance offerings and was amazed and pleased with how FUN it was. “Winning Time” is probably the most purely entertaining film of the “30 for 30” series.
3) “The Best That Never Was” – Marcus Dupree’s story is a good one and even if the film might go a little long, Jonathan Hock got so much access to footage and candid interview subjects that it remains captivating. Along the way, he also does a good job of neatly yoking Dupree’s life into the life of Philadelphia, Mississippi. That elevates the whole story.
2) “The Two Escobars” – A *fantastic* story told with confidence. You have football, drugs and murder. You have an amazing wealth of footage. And even if you knew one story — The 1994 World Cup part of the tale, of example — the detail was so well rendered that surely there were other things you didn’t know. This was a favorite for many “30 for 30” viewers and even if I might slightly prefer the elegant intimacy of “The Band that Wouldn’t Die,” I wouldn’t begrudge this taking the top spot.
1) “The Band that Wouldn’t Die” – It’s odd, but nobody ever mentions this as their “30 for 30” favorite, but to me, this is everything the “30 for 30” franchise aspired to: Get an acclaimed filmmaker with a personal story to tell, a personal story that uses a tiny, largely unknown narrative to illuminate a far larger story that touches on both sports and on something far bigger than sports. And unlikely many of the later films that meandered to feature length and beyond, Barry Levinson did it all in 50 minutes. And also unlike many of the other films, you never miss for a second that this is A Barry Levinson Film. It has voice and authorial intent. I dig that.
Your Turn! Which were your favorites?

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