Since ESPN shrewdly decided to move up the release date of their 10-part documentary on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, The Last Dance, as the world remains on lock-down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it has dominated the cultural conversation in a way that few documentaries could ever dream of (Tiger King notwithstanding).
NBA diehards and casual fans alike are tuning in to ESPN in record numbers each Sunday to get yet another peek behind the curtain of one of the most compelling sports teams ever assembled, as we are made privy to all the inter-organizational machinations and salacious details as the iconic Bulls team of the 90s went for their sixth and final championship run.
The reception has been almost universally positive. Emphasis on the “almost.” Ken Burns, arguably the world’s most famous documentarian, isn’t as taken with all this as the rest of us, and this week, he did his best to dump a bucket of cold water on all the fun. Burns criticized the documentary for what he sees as a blatant conflict of interest that undermines its journalistic integrity.
Mr. Burns has been spending the quarantine walking, writing poetry and working on the seven documentary films he has in production. But he has yet to watch ESPN’s popular Michael Jordan documentary series, “The Last Dance.” The series counts the basketball great’s production company as a partner, an arrangement Mr. Burns says he would “never, never, never, never” agree to. “I find it the opposite direction of where we need to be going,” he says.
“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” he says. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”
First, it’s probably best not to pass judgment on something you haven’t even watched yet. It also begs the question of what level of investigatory journalism you expect from a documentary of this sort. Documentaries exist on a continuum, and they almost always have a particular point-of-view, despite the many pretenses of objectivity.
Some are more beholden to historical accuracy and rigorous objectivity than others. That’s not to say viewers shouldn’t be dubious of some of the many stories they’re hearing in The Last Dance or skeptical about how fairly some of the people involved are being depicted. Considering who’s in charge of the telling, you have to take it with a grain of salt.
This is particularly true when it comes to the portrait of GM Jerry Krause that has emerged over the first four episodes, as well as Isiah Thomas and his long-standing feud with Jordan stemming back to the heyday of the Bad Boy Pistons. With Jordan ultimately having control over the archival footage of their final season together, his involvement was inevitable — and was the reason for this footage remaining dormant for two decades.
And Michael Jordan being who he is, it was likewise inevitable that he would use the opportunity to settle old scores, a preoccupation of his throughout his career and in retirement. With six episodes still to come, it remains to be seen whether Jordan himself will come out of this relatively unscathed or whether we will end up with a more complicated portrayal. The mythology surrounding Jordan has morphed over the years into someone who was myopic in his competitive drive, a vicious and tyrannical leader who either broke you or elevated you to his level, and an aloof personality who carefully and consistently guarded his public image to suit his purposes.
It’s the latter part that carries the most concern for a documentary purist like Burns. Knowing the legend of Jordan’s iron-fisted rule over the Bulls is one thing. Seeing it in action is another thing entirely. The question of this series is just how much of it we’ll actually get to see by the end of it and how much that might alter our perception of him.
Ultimately, we’ll each have to judge for ourselves just how much he’s tailored and crafted the narrative in his favor, whether he’s given us just enough to feel like we’ve gotten our money’s worth and at the same time maintaining a relatively sanitized version of the “Michael Jordan” he so often speaks of in the third person.