‘The Last Dance’ provides sports documentaries a breath of fresh air

The documentary has provided new insight and talking points while redefining an icon.

By Will Pankey

 

If you’ve been paying attention to the sports world at all during the ongoing quarantine, you know that coverage has gravitated towards one thing: “The Last Dance.” The 10-part ESPN docuseries, which recollects Michael Jordan’s final season as a Chicago Bull, dives deep into Jordan’s lore as a player and person. The documentary weaves together MJ’s story, from his seasons as a young phenom, to his bruising postseason battles with the Detroit Pistons, to finally tasting glory, over and over and over. With over 500 hours of footage captured just during the 1997-1998 season alone, “The Last Dance” stands as a feat of documentary storytelling and one of unprecedented access to an icon who defined and transcended an era of American popular culture.

What makes “The Last Dance” so fascinating, though, are the tiny details that make it such a satisfying watch. Yes, it helps that director Jason Hehir and the crew were afforded access to Michael Jordan, one of the most ubiquitous yet walled-off personalities in sports. It also helps that MJ is game for the doc, willing to open up and tell the story as he saw it from his two cheese eyes. But it’s the documentary’s ability to tinker with the present while recalling the past that makes it stand out

Throughout the documentary, Hehir surprises interview subjects by pulling out iPads during the interview and showing them interview footage of other players recalling the same incident. The most talked-about (and memed about) instance of this device is when the documentary expertly pieces together the Bulls’ playoff run during the 1995-1996 season. In the Finals, the Bulls faced off against Gary Payton’s Seattle Supersonics. Payton appears in the documentary, delivering a typically fiery account of how he decided to buck Sonics’ coach George Karl’s wishes by guarding Jordan. Where a typical sports documentary might show the epic showdown, “The Last Dance” does that but it also executes a surprise turn by cutting to Jordan as the climax of the story approaches, showing Jordan laughing at Payton’s insistence that he gave Jordan a tough time during the series. 

On one hand, it could be read as a classic, in-character Michael Jordan assh*le move, cackling at a former opponent who is talking in his documentary. But it’s also a simple editing trick that does a few things: It provides a dialogue about the documentary inside the documentary in real-time. It also allows players to let their mask slip a bit, providing them a space to display genuine reactions and emotions when put on the spot. ESPN has breathlessly followed up each episode with supplementary commentary, but in a lot of ways, the most useful commentary comes with the interview subjects reacting to what another person said. It provides depth to players, specifically MJ, presenting him as a mythological basketball player but also, most crucially as a living, breathing human. 

But that simple storytelling mechanic hints at what people want out of sports documentaries and why “The Last Dance” has been able to capture the imaginations of a country suspended in motion. We all want to connect with our favorite sports stars. Many of us do that through vicariously living through their triumphs or arguing all day on Twitter about rankings and stats. But what “The Last Dance” proves is that we want that but we also crave the full picture, the shedding of layers, the nostalgia, warts and those moments that allow us to view athletes in a new light.