You Watched O.J.: Made in America, Now Here’s Some Essential 30 for 30’s You Need to See

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Now that director Ezra Edelman’s masterful deep dive into the Trial of the Century, O.J.: Made in America is over, you may be asking yourself now what? For those who’ve never seen another one of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries–or those who can’t get enough–here’s a handy list of which movie you should watch next.

If You Want More O.J.: June 17, 1994

Named for the date of the infamous Bronco Chase, this is sort of the atypical 30 for 30. While most of the films mix current interviews with archival footage and recordings of gameplay, June 17, 1994 is all archival footage. However, it’s not just about O.J. It’s a masterclass in editing that shows just how much was happening in the world of sports on that day in history. From golfer Arnold Palmer’s final professional game to Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Knicks and Rockets, that particular day was packed with professional sports. Yet the most impressive thing about the film is the way director Brett Morgen documents the way the Bronco Chase slowly seeped into every one of those other sporting events, conveying just what a massive moment it was for not just sports, but pop culture and America.

If You Like Scandals, Doping Edition: 9.79*

Before Made in America, I would have picked this as the best 30 for 30 ever. The steroid question has haunted sports for decades and the scandal that saw Canadian Ben Johnson win a gold medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics for the 100-meter dash only to lose it two days later when he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs perfectly encapsulates the culture of deceit and disappointment that it creates.

The film is surprisingly unflinching in its criticism of the featured athletes, its best trick being the contrast between the moments early on when each athlete swears up and down that they weren’t doping and the scene near the end that reveals how many of them were actually caught for it. By the time Dr. Don Catlin, Director of the UCLA Olympic Lab says that when he tested old samples, today’s more advanced methics revealed even more infractions, you’ll be wondering if there are any heroes left.

If You Like Fantasy Sports: Silly Little Game

It’s a rare film indeed that can take a subject as boring and asinine (sorry, but it is) as fantasy sports and make it seem like the most fun a person can have. Originally called “Rotisserie Baseball” because the group of journalists who invented the game were in a rotisserie chicken restaurant at the time, the film tracks the game from its invention, through the popularity boom that helped it slip away from its creators and all the way to today. Some may find the joke-y reenactments a little obnoxious, but the members of that first Rotisserie League have some big personalities and the creative flare perfectly accentuates them. A dude literally traded a player for a new shirt, for goodness’ sake.

If You Like Little (Football) Teams that Could: The ’85 Bears

Most people probably have little experience with the Bears outside of those Saturday Night Live sketches from years ago, but this documentary tells the story of how “Da Bears” became a punchline in the first place. Tracking their rapid rise to dominance from Mike Ditka’s arrival as head coach in 1982 to one of the all-time great seasons in 1985, the film is just as much about the games as the men on the field. From rebellious quarterback Jim McMahon to the unstoppable tank that was The Refrigerator a.k.a. William Perry, the team was full of big personalities, but its unspoken hero was head defensive coach Buddy Ryan. Though the team quickly fell apart after Ryan left to coach the Philadelphia Eagles, the players are still just as loyal to him now as the day they wrote a letter to Bears owner Halas McCaskey imploring him to keep Ryan on the staff. And by the time the players read aloud a letter written by present-day Ryan calling them his heroes, you’ll be fighting back tears.

If You Like Little (Football) Teams that Couldn’t: Four Falls of Buffalo

Using the nearby Niagara Falls as a metaphor, director Ken Rodgers tells the painful story of how the Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row in the early ’90s. On some level, it’s tough to watch a team so strong fail over and over and over again, but it’s also inspiring. Sports–and particularly movies about sports–usually focus on winning, but you can learn a lot from loss and Rodgers turns the Bills’ story into a lesson about how to lose with dignity. There are a couple of strange artistic choices here (particularly the somewhat awkward footage of former players rewatching the lost games), but the moment when kicker Scott Norwood steps in front of a crowd of fans to apologize for losing that first game and all the fans do is cheer is both humbling and beautiful.

If You Like Boxing: No Màs

This perhaps works best if you don’t know about the rivalry between Sugar Ray Leonard and Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, but it still tells a fascinating story. The film is set up like a thriller, teasing the infamous declaration of “no màs” at the beginning and slowly working toward the strangest thing to ever happen in a fight besides the time Mike Tyson took a bite of Evander Holyfield’s ear (speaking of, there’s a great 30 for 30 on that rivalry called Chasing Tyson you should check out too).

While director Eric Drath does an excellent job of examining all possible reasons for why that second fight between Leonard and Durán came to an abrupt end, the smartest thing it does is contrast how the former rivals see the fight now. The film suddenly goes from a documentary about a rivalry to an exploration of the performance of masculinity and the way that performance is sometimes about insecurity just as often as confidence.

If You Like Scandals, Questionable Recruiting Practices Edition: Pony Excess

It’s easy to forget that college football is just as much about money as it is about playing a sport. Yet as journalist George Riba says, “show me a winning program, and I’ll show you a program that cheats.” And back in the early ’80s, perhaps no team won or cheated harder than Southern Methodist University. Fueled by a very active and generous booster club, SMU football made huge payouts to their players in flagrant violation of NCAA rules. It all came crashing down, though, when the NCAA punished the program with what’s called the “Death Penalty,” bringing down sanctions that basically decimated the school’s football program for decades.

If You Like Tennis and Arrogance: This is What They Want

Tennis player Jimmy Connors seemed well past his prime when he decided to compete in the 1991 U.S. Open. Yet rather than get knocked out of competition by a younger, stronger player in the first round, he nearly walked away with the whole thing. Combative and an unrepentant showman, Connors became the story that year as he played one marathon match after another, narrowly snatching an incredible series of victories from the jaws of defeats. His best performance came on his 43rd birthday during his match with friend and practice partner Aaron Krickstein, who was 15 years his junior. During the nearly 5-hour match, Connors used every trick in his book–including changing his shoes and rackets multiple time–to psych Krickstein out and by the time Connors finally won, Krickstein was humiliated and their friendship was over.

If You Like Tennis and Humility: Unmatched

In case you need an antidote to the swagger and aggression of the previous doc, this is the perfect film for you. Basically a filmed conversation between two old friends with some archival footage thrown in between, tennis stars Chris Evert and Martina Navratilovna are refreshingly frank about themselves and each other as they reminisce about their long, intense rivalry. However, while Connors and Krickstein’s time on the court ruined their friendship forever, Evert and Navratilovna are nothing but complimentary. The film can lean a little too far into the touchy-feely women’s picture tone of it all, but there’s something about the understated politeness that somehow feels more secure than the bluster you usually see from athletes.

If You Like Cycling: Slaying the Badger

This film feels more like a soap opera than a documentary as it chronicles how the friendship between American cyclist Greg LeMond and French teammate Bernard Hinault a.k.a. “The Badger” turned into a rivalry during the 1986 Tour de France. During the ’85 Tour, LeMond helped Hinault win with the understanding that Hinault would reciprocate the next year. However, when the time came to keep the promise, Hinault basically ignored it, trying to win the Tour a record sixth time. Watching the riders talk about the race in present day interviews, it’s kind of fascinating to see how they seem to have completely different concepts of the truth and–in some cases–honor, and the whole movie seems like a subtle treatise on how not even friendship is as important as winning. And if all that doesn’t convince you then how about this: LeMond pointing out that all he would ever say when asked for comments about Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins was that it was “unbelievable” is some of the best low-level shade you’ll ever hear in a sports documentary.

If You Like Soccer: Hillsborough

I’ll warn you now, this one’s a downer. A comprehensive examination of the tragedy at Hillsborough during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest, this plays more like a thriller about institutional corruption than a sports documentary. The botched crowd management that led to 96 deaths is frustrating enough, but the behavior of the police and those investigating the tragedy is downright infuriating and appalling. There is some comfort in the fact that an independent panel finally gave the families of those killed the justice they deserved in 2012, but that it took that long to wade through the lies and victim blaming is almost as big a tragedy as the events at Hillsborough themselves.

See also: White, Blue and White

For whatever reason, all of the soccer 30 for 30‘s are kind of depressing. This one is the closest to upbeat and it’s partially about the war between Great Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Its real subject, though, is the player caught between both countries: Osvaldo Adiles. Director Camilo Antolini does a solid job of conveying Ardiles’s internal conflict, but this is mostly a standard sports documentary. However, there’s a last minute plot twist that is such a weird, shocking turn, that it kind of improves the whole film as a piece of storytelling.

If You Like Scandals, College Lacrosse Edition: Fantastic Lies

This is a story many people probably already know, but this film is an excellent examination of a scandal that–much like the O.J. Trial–played out in the court of public opinion. Director Marina Zenovich essentially recreates what it was like to watch the scandal unfold, initially making it feel like the Duke lacrosse team members had to have raped the stripper they hired on March 13, 2006 to dance at their house party and then slowly revealing how assumptions and misbehavior by prosecutor Mike Nifong fooled everyone. The result is nothing short of a tragedy—of the justice system, of journalism, for any victim of rape, for the wrongly accused, the list goes on.

If You Like Hockey: Of Miracles and Men

You’re probably thinking, “what more could I possibly learn about the Miracle on Ice? I saw 2004’s Miracle, it’s pretty good.” But this isn’t about the 1980 U.S. Hockey team that won the Olympic gold medal against all odds. It’s about the Russian team they beat.

The story starts just after World War II, when Vasily Stalin (son of Joseph) enlisted Anatoli Tarasov to take a sport invented in Canada and put a Soviet twist on it. His eventual description of the differences between the styles of play is as apt a summation of the two major players in the Cold War as any: “in [North America] four men depend on one man while in our hockey, one man depends on four.” Tarasov’s team-oriented stype of play helped Russia dominate the sport for decades, even after the ’80 Olympics loss. Still, that loss had a profound effect on the players. Chief among them was Slava Fetisov, who struggled to leave his home country to play in the NHL basically until just before the Berlin Wall came down.

If You Like Basketball: Requiem for the Big East

Directed by Made in America mastermind, Ezra Edelman, the film tracks how a handful of really strong northeastern basketball teams banded together to make one of the greatest college conferences in history. Though the end is a bit painful for any fan who watched the Big East crumble in the last few years (I’m a Syracuse fan and I’m sorry for what we’ve done), there’s nothing like seeing the conference in its glory. You can see shades of the same meticulous research and strong directorial voice Edelman used to make his deep dive into O.J.’s career so great in the way he suggests that the things that made the Big East famous are the same things that eventually tore it apart. Conferences live and die by their TV deals and that early partnership with the fledgling ESPN made the Big East a college basketball staple across the country and made the teams’ coaches into celebrities. But nothing gold can stay and basketball money is nothing compared to football money.

If You Like Baseball: Brothers in Exile

This isn’t as much about baseball as it is about how half-brothers Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez left Cuba to play in the United States. While Livan’s defection was relatively easy (he snuck out of a hotel in Monterey, Mexico under cover of darkness) Orlando’s was something straight out of a movie. Leaving their two daughters with family, Orlando, his wife and a few friends left on a small boat in the middle of the night, were stranded on an island for a few days and nearly sent back to Cuba before they finally made it to the United States. It’s even more compelling than it sounds.

If You Like Science and Ancient Curses: Angry Sky

While there are a lot of 30 for 30‘s about football and basketball, there are also some great alternatives to the traditional sports story and this is one of them. Before Felix Baumgartner used the full resources of Red Bull to break the record for highest freefall, Nick Piantanida tried to do it all the way back in 1966. A truck driver from New Jersey who was a bit of an adrenaline junky, Piantanida first started doing the impossible when he and a friend became the first people to climb the face of Angel Falls in Venezuela—despite local fears that doing so would mean bad luck. A decade later, after taking up sky diving as a hobby, Piantanida set his eyes on the world record for highest freefall and basically did it without the help of NASA or the US Air Force scientists who knew how to do it. Given that, it’s perhaps no surprise that things eventually went south, but before it does, this is a great profile (with incredible archival footage) of a fascinating guy who just wanted to do something extraordinary.

By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

4 COMMENTS

  1. We’re forgetting the most important 30 for 30 of all – Four Days in October, which recounts the glorious comeback of the Red Sox down 3-0 to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. Greatest Sports Comeback of all time.

    • I was *thisclose* to including that one, but Brothers in Exile won me over. Also, maybe I’m punishing it for not mentioning how Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner revealed their relationship at one of those games, which was frankly the only reason I cared at the time. WE’LL NEVER KNOW, DAN.

  2. The first 30 for 30 I saw was The Price of Gold, which was about the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident in ’94. It did a great job of making you understand what could lead Harding to go after Kerrigan, since the working class Harding didn’t get sponsorships because she didn’t fit the ice princess image.

    • Ooh, yeah, that one is strong. Would have made a good scandal suggestion too. My only complaint with it though is that I wish they’d gotten present-day Kerrigan to do an interview. I do like the way it suggests she’s moved on while Harding is still bitter, obsessed and in denial.

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