A week after arguably the weakest “30 for 30” film yet, we got one of the series’ strongest installments with “The Best That Never Was.” A few quick thoughts coming up just as soon as I give you my power of attorney…
It’s been a while since a “30 for 30” film got a two-hour running time (most had to come in at an hour, and a handful got an hour and a half to two hours), and “The Best That Never Was” absolutely merited the longer slot. Jonathan Hock took a story I knew nothing about (as someone who doesn’t follow college football, and was a little kid during Marcus’ brief but brilliant Oklahoma career) and told the hell out of it. He got access to virtually all the major players, got tremendous candor from nearly all of them (Barry Switzer in particular, I thought), uncovered tons of great archival footage of Marcus’ genius on the field, and covered all the angles. We got Marcus’ story itself – which isn’t exactly like any other college football story, but has parts in common with so many that it served as a stand-in for a lot of them – but also the story of Philadelphia, MS, and how the despicable villain of one true story (Cecil Price) can be a positive figure in another.
In sports, we talk about tiny fractions all the time as we look up the ladder of success: how only a tiny fraction of star high school athletes will go on to play big-time college ball, and how a tiny fraction of that group will do well in the pros. Marcus Dupree should have been one of those, but one thing after another went wrong. Maybe if he’d committed to Southern Miss to begin with, or if Switzer’s staff had recognized that Marcus didn’t need to be pushed in practice to be brilliant on game day, he’d have played three or four years in college, and gone on to the NFL. Maybe he’d have been in better shape throughout his pro career. Maybe he wouldn’t have suffered that devastating knee injury. Maybe he’d have wound up with a legitimate agent who didn’t leave him broke. But he made the decisions he made, others around him made theirs, and he had the life he had. Not a tragedy, exactly – how many get to shine as brightly as he did on the national stage, even if it was only for a season? – but not the triumph everyone expected from him.
Damn good film, and I’m glad after some recent shaky entries one of our closing movies was so terrific. Only one film left in the initial run of the series (Thaddeus D. Matula’s “Pony Excess” on Dec. 11), followed by a handful of films next year (including Alex Gibney’s delayed Steve Bartman film) that will air under the imprint. Though “30 for 30” has had its ups and downs, for the most part its impact on the sports documentary medium has been really impressive, and I hope ESPN keeps trying to make movies like this one when they have a story worth telling, and a filmmaker who can tell it with the style Dan Klores brought to “Winning Time,” or the passion Barry Levinson gave “The Band That Wouldn’t Die,” or the scope that the Zimablist brothers gave to “The Two Escobars.”
What did everybody else think?