Review: Magic Johnson, HIV, and ESPN’s ‘The Announcement’

03.10.12 6 years ago 36 Comments


I watched and reviewed almost all of ESPN’s “30 for 30” films, but since the documentary series relaunched last year under the simpler ESPN Films banner, I have to admit I’ve lost track. I have DVDs of all of them, but “Fab Five” and “Catching Hell” were the only ones I actually found time for, unfortunately.

This weekend’s “The Announcement” (tomorrow at 9 p.m.), though, deals with one of my favorite athletes of all time, and with the story that literally made me watch ESPN for the first time ever, so there was no way I was going to miss it.

And though, like several of the original “30 for 30” films, it gets hamstrung in spots by a particular filmmaking choice, the story itself is so strong, as are the recollections of the people who went through it, that I very much recommend watching.

The announcement of the title was Lakers star point guard Magic Johnson declaring in 1991 that he had contracted the HIV virus and would be retiring from the NBA as a result. The film goes back much earlier than that, zipping through Magic’s incredible pro basketball career – and his on-and-off courtship of future wife Cookie – featuring a plethora of highlights from the Showtime Lakers offense that Magic famously ran throughout the 1980s. Some athletes from earlier eras don’t seem all that impressive when viewed through a modern lens, but Magic’s no-look passes to Kareem, Worthy, Rambis, etc. are still jaw-dropping.

Those scenes are important to put Magic in context – to show not only the skill, but the joy, he brought to the game, and to explain why the basketball world (and America at large) was so crushed when he announced what at the time everyone assumed was a death sentence.

The movie (directed by Nelson George) isn’t particularly interested in how Magic contracted the virus. Magic acknowledges that he had unprotected sex with someone other than Cookie, but Cookie herself says she never wanted to know, and the most candor on the subject comes from Magic’s eldest son (from a previous relationship) Andre, who recalls his father calling him and telling him not to make the same mistakes with women that he did.

What George cares about is showing how Magic’s illness – and then his continued health, two decades and counting after the diagnosis – changed the world’s perception of HIV and AIDS. At the time, Magic notes, many people couldn’t even distinguish one from the other, and there’s archival news footage of ABC News anchor Peter Jennings (whom Magic would outlive) mistakenly saying that Johnson had contracted AIDS.

Magic is still around, and still thriving, having made a couple of comebacks with the Lakers (plus a brief stint as Lakers coach that the movie doesn’t touch on), a lot of TV analyst work and a successful business empire. But he says his status is almost a double-edged sword: he’s drastically raised awareness of how to contract and protect yourself from HIV, but he’s been doing so well for so long that some people look at him and feel less scared of the condition.

All of the archival footage is powerful, whether Magic doing an educational video at the time that featured two little kids who were HIV-positive, or former Lakers coach Pat Riley getting Magic out of a post-retirement funk by inviting him to practice at Madison Square Garden. And the interviews (including Magic, Cookie, Riley, other Lakers personnel at the time and Magic’s celebrity friends Arsenio Hall and Chris Rock) are very strong and revealing.

The big mistake that George makes is to have Magic himself narrate the film. On paper, that’s not a bad idea – “Once Brothers,” one of the more powerful “30 for 30” films, was narrated by (ex-Magic teammate) Vlade Divac, its main subject – but the execution isn’t great. Magic sounds much more stilted reading the voiceover script than he does in the moments where he’s sitting down for an interview, or where he’s walking George and the crew through the Great Western Forum to show where he told his teammates about his condition, the room where the famous press conference was held, etc. Though he and Riley created Showtime, and he’s had a long career on TV, Magic has never seemed like a guy who’s good working off a script. (Case in point: his awkward appearance in this “Lethal Weapon 2” commercial.) If George felt the need to link together all the different phases of Magic’s life and career, he’d have been better off doing such an extensive interview that he could cobble together a narration out of that.

But in spite of the clumsy voiceover, I got choked up many times watching “The Announcement,” not least of all when Magic promised at the end of that press conference, “I’m gonna beat it, I’m gonna have some fun, and I’ll see you soon.”

Because he did, dammit. And he’s still here.

So set the DVRs for Sunday night (ESPN is following it at 10:30 with a 30-minute TV version of Bill Simmons’ “The B.S. Report” podcast, featuring an interview with Magic), and feel free to post comments about it here after you’ve watched.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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