The disaster. The comeback. The underdog. The glory. Stories that Hollywood producers couldn’t make up if they were on an LSD trip with Dennis Rodman. Sporting documentaries are what happens when a love of film and sport are combined to create one ultimate emotion that is unheard of within any area of other cinematic experiences.
But what makes a great sporting biopic? The story is there. The characters have already been cast. Surely any competent documentary maker could throw one together? It may be a hard niche of cinema to get wrong, but it’s a difficult one to get right.
A truly great sporting documentary should be able to transfer over to any audience. Viewers that may not even have an interest in that particular sport, or sport at all for that matter.
Take the recent release of the highly anticipated ‘Class Of 92’. In what was a mostly interesting insight into a core of British players that formed one of the greatest club teams ever, there wasn’t much else for the neutral.
Instead we got a bit of a love-in for some well known players and some interviews with some high-profile people including, unnecessarily, former Primer Minister Tony Blair.
Even those who are a fan of the celebrity David Beckham (as appose to the sporting hero David Beckham) might find themselves bemused at the story of Phil Neville performing step-overs during a Premier League match.
Whilst it may have been enjoyable viewing for the majority of football fans who grew up watching Manchester United’s kids dominate English football, there isn’t really anything else in it that would entice those without an interest in the sport.
With that in mind, here are five of the best sporting documentaries around. For the lovers of great stories, not just sport.
One Night In Turin
Gazza’s tears, Lineker’s look to the bench, Platt’s last minute volley, Waddle’s penalty miss, captain Bryan Robson’s early exit due to injury, Bobby Robson’s little jig on the sideline. The iconic moments are all there.
But it’s the story off the field that’s just as intriguing as the one unfolding on it.
English football fans abroad come with a certain amount of baggage. Hooliganism was still rife within the game and with the Hillsborough disaster having taken place just months before the 1990 World Cup, all eyes were on how the supporters behaved.
A conservative government run by a football hating Margaret Thatcher only added to the fire and discontent burning in the large number of fans heading over to Italy. The supporters were policed to an extent where trouble was ultimately unavoidable.
‘One Night In Turin’ is as much a sporting documentary as it is an insight into the social unrest between a nation and its government.
On top of all that, it’s narrated by Gary Oldman.
The Armstrong Lie
Lance Armstrong is a life-ruining sociopath who led the whole world on a not so merry spin whilst surviving cancer and winning a record number of Tour de France’s that have now been rescinded because he cheated in all seven he competed in.
It’s fair to say that for a man who raced pedal bikes for a living, he provides an unbelievably interesting focal point for a documentary. Armstrong’s unrelenting intensity and undeniable aura on screen is compelling viewing and, much like everyone else did, you find yourself hanging from his every word.
Director Alex Gibney is given the opportunity to film before, during and after the confession of Armstrong’s fabricated story. He perfectly portrays the psyche of a man who did so much for cancer awareness and raised so much money for the cause, yet will always be known as a fraud.
Made up completely of archive footage and interviews, ‘Senna’ really shouldn’t interest those that don’t have even a slight curiosity in motor racing. But it’s a testament to those who made the film and Ayrton Senna himself that it is able to reach out and grab the attention of a much larger audience.
Senna wasn’t just an exciting driver to watch on the track; he stood up against all he felt was wrong within Formula One. The Brazilian wasn’t afraid to speak his mind when many of his peers shirked away from controversy and his constant conflict with fellow driver Alain Prost is one of the great sporting rivalries.
The lead up to his death during the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 is made even more intriguing when Roland Ratzenbeger is involved in a fatal crash during qualifying for the same race.
A hero in Brazil, ‘Senna’ provides an insight into what the three times F1 champion meant to the people in his native country. His outspoken yet articulate points of view were a voice for millions of Brazilians living in poverty.
The Two Escobars
Strangely not as popular as the aforementioned films, ‘The Two Escobars’ is documentary making at its finest.
The murder of Andrés Escobar after he scored an own goal during the 1994 World Cup, effectively knocking Colombia out of the competition, is a representation of the teetering social delusion in Colombia at the time. A country’s sporting success had been predominantly funded by drug money.
Pablo Escobar was the modern day Robin Hood. That is if Robin Hood was the world’s most famous cocaine trafficker. He pulled Colombian football out of the mud and funded a resurgence within the sport in the country. The drug lord became a hero amongst the poor after building houses in deprived areas and giving jobs to those with no money.
The connection between the national team and P.Escobar was so close that the players visited the drug baron whilst he was in prison. It is thought that A.Escobar would not have been murdered had his namesake not died less than a year before the World Cup.
South American football is strange at the best of times. Throw in someone with the nickname ‘The King Of Cocaine’ and you’ve got yourself a story that verges on the unbelievable.
When We Were Kings
Muhammad Ali is about as box office as it gets in the world of sport. His fight with George Forman in Zaire, ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’, is still one of the most talked about sporting events ever.
Racial tensions were still widespread throughout America during the seventies and Ali was a voice for the black people living in the country at the time. The film is full to the brim of the boxer at his eloquent and poetic best. Always engaging and never boring, Ali takes centre stage here as he did throughout his career.
The president of Zaire, Mobutu Sésé Seko, thought that putting on a bout of such magnitude would put his country on the map and the majority of the documentary focuses predominantly on the build up to the event. Highlighting Zaire under a dictatorship and their infatuation with Ali, a hero to so many in Africa.
Boxing isn’t for everyone. But it is undeniable that Ali is one of the most captivating characters in the public eye. ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’ will forever be etched in sporting history and this documentary explains why.
By Robert Davis