by Scott Lawson

Spectators are often desperate to peek behind the curtain, to see the inner workings of corporations, of writing an album, of preparing for a mission in space. It is the finer details, profound and mundane, which enthral. As things are happening, headlines and speculative reports are the few ways events can be interacted with, the few ways a narrative can be formed. This is especially true for sports. While they are often well reported and numerous journalists have insider information, spelling out inner drama and decisions, it is far less satisfying, far less whole, than it being caught on camera or spoken into one.

Players, coaches, and owners are all media trained. In the living moment, narratives are swept aside. It’s all guesses and rumours and then it’s left up to fans and journalists to form narratives. It isn’t even the drama which captures the imagination. It can simply be training, watching elite athletes go about their normal routine. The actions in montages in the Rocky films are as important to the experience as its climatic scenes.

Sports documentaries, especially those which have unprecedented access to all involved, who can add their “unfiltered” perspective and thoughts, allow think peeking behind the curtain, they give the “whole picture.” They are a much-loved genre of film. There are plenty available on all the streaming services at your disposal – originals and those previously released theatrically and on the small screen. Here are three that could help tide you over until the summer.

The Last Dance

The Last Dance charts Michael Jordan’s final season, 1997-1998, with the Bulls, as the team looked to win their third championship since MJ’s return, achieving their second three-peat. A documentary crew was given access to the team, enabling them to be in the locker rooms, at training, and follow the players in their life beyond the game of basketball. MJ would only allow the footage to be used if he gave his permission, which it took until 2016 to acquire. In amongst the drama of the season, there are flashbacks to previous seasons, to flesh out narratives and sports stars. MJ, in the present day, offers his sincere reflections on the ongoings, and his teammates and coaches do theirs, as well as journalists.

Michael Jordan is one of the greatest athletes to ever play any kind of sport and became a global cultural icon, elevating the NBA as he rose. Any conversations about GOATs (Greatest of All Time) involve him and his achievements. Because that is one of the things which separate Michael Jordan – and others like him – from players who have been called geniuses in their sport: he won trophies.

Jordan won everything he could: MVPs, Olympic Games, and six NBA titles split into two three-peats, with a two season stretch between the two three-peats which included an eighteen-month retirement from basketball to experiment with baseball. This level of success is unheard of. No one else had managed such continued success in a team sport.

The odds of this happening in any sport are astronomical. There have been instances where punters would have won had they placed their bets on such crazy achievements: most recently, soccer’s Real Madrid won three back-to-back Champions Leagues (European soccer’s greatest competition), which hadn’t been achieved in the modern era of football, not even back-to-back Champions League winners had been crowned.

Leicester City, another example from soccer, won the English Premier League in 2016. The odds were 5000/1 for them to be champions before the season had begun. Some did put the bet on, but they headed to the bookmakers early and cashed out, meaning no one braved the full 38-game season to take home the maximum prize. This is the longest odds which has resulted in a title. These bets are only made by the absolute believers, the people who have guts within their guts, a reserve of boldness, or those who, after spending time on OLBG looking for bonuses, have free bets to use.

MJ’s success was more unlikely than those mentioned. To put a number to another achievement, if you want further proof of his unerring ability to not lose: he only had sixteen two-game losing streaks, after three defeats in a row in the 1990/1991 season, the odds of which sit at a hefty one in one quadrillion.

This docu-series shows MJ as a machine and a man.

Free Solo

Free Solo tells the story of Alex Honnold as he prepares to be the first person to free solo climb (ascend without any ropes nor safety measures) El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.

This is a feature-film length documentary which is wound tight with tension. To invoke a cliché, it is a heart-in-the-mouth watch. Honnold trains and trains and becomes vulnerable in moments, entertaining self-doubt. His relationships with his mother and girlfriend, as well as fellow climber Tommy Caldwell, lend themselves to raising the stakes.

In certain films like this, you anticipate the outcome. You might not know the story, but expect certain things. Free Solo works hard, and successfully, to render your expectations irrelevant. They don’t matter. What Honnold is setting out to achieve cannot be ignored, lessened, or expected, especially when he stands at the base of El Capitan, chalking his hands, looking up.

The film grapples with itself, about how ethical filming his attempt to free solo climb El Capitan is. They could end up filming a disaster, the loss of a close friend. And this extends into and from Honnold’s own ideas about his enthusiasm for free solo climbing, and how it affects him and his relationships, continually.

Icarus

A film that begins, and initially sets out, with a small and local premise which intended to shed light on doping in cycling and stumbled upon an international scandal. Another tense watch, but this time it’s more of a political and brooding tension, as opposed to the don’t-look-down tension of Free Solo.

Brian Fogel, the director and central figure of the film, wanted to see if he could use doping to win an amateur cycling race without being caught. He enlists the help of Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. Rodchenkov helps Fogel, giving him a plan and substances which will help Fogel evade capture as he trains and races. As time passes, the two men become friendly, leading to a confession: Rodchenkov admits that there is a state-sponsored doping program which will help the Russian Olympians compete.

Real world catches up with the documentary’s narrative as news spreads of the doping program. Quickly, Fogel and Rodchenkov become more tangled as Fogel tries to help Rodchenkov escape being silenced.

The film’s scope surprises and shocks as sport and politics meet head-on.

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