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30 for 30 reviews: Without Bias, Muhammad and Larry

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ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series sets out to chronicle 30 of the most famous sports history events of the last 30 years, since ESPN's founding in 1980.  There are 30 different filmmakers involved in the project, which can make it a bit spotty at times, but overall the series is definitely a strong one.  I was lucky enough to get the first boxed set for Christmas, so you'll see a lot of these reviews occurring over the next couple weeks.


Without Bias is about the 1986 death of Len Bias from cocaine on the night after he was drafted #2 overall by the Boston Celtics.  He never even got to play a pro game.   Heck, he never even managed to attend a pro practice.  His story is definitely compelling.  Here's an athlete cut down in the flower of youth by drugs.  He was an amazing talent.  Even more puzzling, he doesn't appear to be a frequent cocaine user, as his grilfriend, best friend, and even the friend who was doing cocaine with him that night all testify that they had never seen him do coke before that night.. 

But for all that the story is compelling, the documentary falls on its face.  The sound and video editing is really poor.  It trends toward corny TV featurette, rather than incisive documentary like much of the rest of the series.  Too much time is spent with melodramatic music and narration.  The interviews with the actual figures in the story are often compelling, but often somewhat clumsy, as if practiced by an inexperienced interviewer.  Sportscasters James Brown and Michael Wilbon appear, and they may be authorities on the Bias story, but they don't seem it.

The film does finish strong, with some commentary about what Bias' death meant to a culture who was cocaine crazy and how it brought home mortality to a generation.  But, it simply takes too long to get there.  This is one of the weakest of the series, and I'd only recommend seeing it if you're a completist.  4/10


On the other hand, there's Muhammad and Larry, a documentary about the Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes fight in 1980.  Ali was an aging heavyweight, and came out of retirement well after he should have, and got destroyed in humiliating fashion by Holmes.  This film is a much better example of the series' style, which combines compelling interviews and expert commentary to weave a storyline which says as much about society as it does about sports.

Holmes and Ali make excellent foils for each other.  Where Ali is brash and talkative, Holmes is wary and realistic.  We also get the treat of an interview with Holmes as he is today.  A modern day interview with Ali is missing, but his debilitating Parkinson's disease hovers about the film like a specter, unseen but powerful.  We all know how this fight ends, and this is more of a parable of how even the great ones can make horrible, tragic mistakes.  This film is as much warning as it is a story.

I was genuinely surprised by Holmes, particularly in contrast with Ali.  He is frank and willing to tell the press what he is thinking.  This is so rarely manifested in athletes that it is downright refreshing.  What's more, compared to Ali, Holmes has his life together, and has gotten on with his life.  While we see Ali as a fighter who just couldn't let go, we see Holmes as what Ali could have been, if he had only known when to stop.  It's a point that leaves you wondering well after the film is over.

Even for people who don't care for boxing, this makes a good film.  The tragic poetry of a hero's downfall is writ large.  7/10