The only complaint I have so far about ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series is how irregularly it airs. Because the cable sports giant has so many live events to schedule, the “30 for 30” films don’t have a stable timeslot, nor do they air on a consistent basis. Tonight at 10, for instance, the series returns for the first time in more than a month with Brett Morgen’s “June 17, 1994” (a look back at an absurd, packed day in sports best-remembered for the OJ Simpson white Bronco chase), and then next week shifts to Tuesday at 9 for Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s “The Two Escobars” (about the intertwining lives and deaths of Colombian soccer star Andres Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar), then disappears again until the end of July.
But if it can be frustrating to wait and look for new films in the series, it’s almost always worth the time and effort. And these next two exemplify the series’ depth, breadth and power.
Both films deal with events from roughly the same period – June 17, 1994 was the opening day of the World Cup where Andres Escobar scored the own goal that would ultimately lead to his murder – and are as interesting (if not moreso) for what they have to say about real-world events connected to sports as for what the show of sport itself.
Morgen elects to go with no narration or talking head interviews, instead constructing the film almost entirely out of footage recorded on that day, including the New York Rangers’ championship parade, Arnold Palmer’s final U.S. Open round ever, Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Knicks and Rockets, and all the insanity of that day in the OJ Simpson case.
That was the day police issued an arrest warrant for OJ, the day OJ then fell off the radar, the day OJ’s friend Robert Kardashian read what sounded like an OJ suicide note in a bizarre press conference and, of course, the day that OJ and Al Cowlings climbed into Cowlings’ white Ford Bronco and led the LAPD on a low-speed chase that would eventually be watched by more than 95 million people. (Some of those people were watching it from monitors inside Madison Square Garden, and even NBC began cutting away from the game and/or showing it in a split-screen with the Bronco.)
Some of the best moments in Morgen’s film come from raw footage of sportscasters like Chris Berman and Bob Costas talking to their producers about how to deal with the OJ story within the context of the events they were covering. Costas, on set for Knicks-Rockets, complains, “There’s no transition. It sounds callous.”
The OJ case in general, and the Bronco chase in particular, essentially gave birth to the horrid 24-hour news cycle we live in now, where no story can possibly be over-covered, and when no piece of information is too sketchy to be rushed on the air as soon as possible, accuracy be damned. We see the genesis of some of that here, like when a local LA station erroneously reports that police were going to issue a second warrant for OJ’s unnamed accomplice, or in a hilariously awkward moment when another station cuts away from the basketball game because their reporter in the field has a new development to discuss… which is that he just borrowed a new phone from an onlooker after his battery died. (The anchorwoman at least has the decency to look mortified over this, which isn’t usually the case 16 years later.)
The two-hour “Two Escobars” is a more traditional documentary, albeit 95% in Spanish with subtitles (ESPN is actually debuting it the night before on ESPN Deportes), as the Zimbalists show how the drug cartel culture led to both the rise of Colombian soccer (because Pablo and his rivals could pay to keep their best players) and then destroyed it (because the cartel-related bloodshed demoralized both the nation and the team representing it). It interviews friends and colleagues of both (unrelated) Escobars, from Andres’ teammates and fiancee to Pablo’s right-hand man (who regrets not being there to die with Pablo) and rivals.
The story is so crazy that even if you know many of the details going in, it still seems unbelievable as it all plays out. After Pablo surrenders to the authorities, one of Andre’s teammates gets in trouble for visiting him in prison – even though the rest of the team, unbeknownst to the public, had also visited Pablo, and even scrimmaged with him while the guards watched
As the team’s coach, Francisco Maturana, puts it, “If Don Corleone invites me to dinner, I show up.”
We see that the brief golden period for the national team helped lift Colombia’s spirits during a particularly violent period, but then that even the healing power of sports has its limits. By the time the team went to the World Cup, they were under emotional siege that involved kidnappings, murdered relatives and even death threats beamed directly to the TV sets in their hotel rooms.
Andres’ sister says that after her brother scored the fateful own goal against the US team, her 9-year-old son turned to her and said, “Mommy, they are going to kill Andres.” Even if you didn’t know that he was murdered, by that point you would have no doubt that the kid was right.
It’s an incredible film, arguably the high point so far in a series that’s been full of award contenders.
“30 for 30” was initially conceived as a low-key way for ESPN to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The series will still be airing well past the 31st anniversary. Assuming the network can keep bringing in the same caliber of filmmaker with the same amount of passion, I hope the series can continue in some form (even if under a different name) once the initial 30 films are all done.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org