On April 19th 2020, ESPN took us on a deep dive into one of the most honoured dynasties in sports history: The Chicago Bulls.
More importantly, ESPN looked at the career of Michael Jordan. There was huge anticipation for it after the trailer in December, showing the star-studded list of interviewees.
Listening to them talk about it was astounding. One could see the impact this superstar and his team had culturally from the first episode. Speaking of Michael Jordan, he opened up about the Bulls’ reign at the top and bewildering break-up for the first time since his playing days. It profited thanks to the pandemic and saw ESPN win their second Academy Award.
The accessibility of the documentary was thanks to the NBA allowing the footage. Once this happened, the desirable footage of the Bulls that season was all to see. The accessibility made the entertainment flourish.
In terms of entertainment, it delivered in abundance. The soundtrack, coupled with the archival footage, was fantastic. For people familiar with the plot of Jordan’s career, a player who went from bright amateur to a larger than life symbol, this breathed new life to them.
However, from a journalistic view, one could argue that it borders on carelessness. Fly on the Wall Documentaries are nothing new despite paranoid secrecy. An Impossible Job, the account of Graham Taylor’s ill-fated management of the English National Team, remains a popular one. Another is John Sitton and Leyton Orient in Club for a Fiver. A performance so disreputable, it cost him future jobs.
The Last Dance shares more shades of Club for a Fiver. We see the perspective of Jordan as a teammate bully and one who would openly disrespect those he did not like.
A part that viewers may not know was that Jump 23, Jordan’s own production company, were part of the project. That factor shows how the production displays negligence. Because if you do not want certain parts shown, they will not be. Essentially, this is bad journalism. Documentarian Ken Burns also echoed this point in the Wall Street Journal.
In terms of Authenticity, it is to an extent. The problem is it becomes authentic when Michael wants it to be and, a key example is in Episode VI. This episode saw his fame witness extraordinary scrutiny in 1993. Questions about his gambling shadowed his chase for a third straight title. What also featured in Episode VI was him being prone to bullying his teammates.
What could have happened was the story arcs of the episode appear problematic and leave it to the reader to decipher the truth of Jordan’s gambling and his treatment of teammates. We did not get this. What we got instead was him addressing it on his terms. The Last Dance is a definitive account. Because of this approach, the issues look problematic at the outset but come off looking forgivable at the end.
It occurs with his infamous “Republicans buy sneakers too” comment amid the North Carolina senate election between Harvey Gantt and Jesse Helms in 1990. A massive situation at the time and the remark has not aged well amid the resurgence of athlete activism.
Yet, this is a definitive account. Michael Jordan was given editorial control and had a final review. Therefore, anyone that did not agree or sympathise with Jordan’s comments were not present in the documentary. Otherwise, this does not become a definitive account.
We saw this with Barack Obama. He did not like the comment but sympathised with his hesitation to take a political stand. “He was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me,’” said Obama. “And then, ‘How do I live up to it?’”
The filmmakers did not want to speak to anyone who was vocal on the subject because it would affect how we saw Jordan. Craig Hodges – a pivotal part of the first two Bulls championship wins with Jordan, who has said on record that the six-time champion did not know what to say on these issues, did not appear in the documentary.
A strange exclusion, considering that the interviewers had 100 people in Jordan’s path questioned. The documentary had no consideration for those defined as villains. A role that Hodges fits through Jordan’s lens.
The Last Dance was a great nostalgic mini-series at a much needed time of the year. The entertainment and viewership were unprecedented and will be one of the best sports documentaries ever made.
However, this mini-series was a missed opportunity in allowing the viewer to interpret what they have seen. Instead, it blurred journalism and entertainment, bypassing traditional channels to control the narrative through Michael Jordan’s own production company. A trend that Jordan was way ahead of in his playing career.