Hamptons International Film Festival, World Cinema: Documentary
Tom Bean, Luke Poling
In their feature debut, Tom Bean and Luke Poling examine the balance of gimmickry and seriousness in Plimpton's strange career.
THE HAMPTONS, New York -- A delightful ride through a singular literary career, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself goes a way toward illuminating a character who could both steer the literati toward new talent in The Paris Review and don pink tights for an amateur trapeze act on national TV. Tom Bean and Luke Poling's film is enough fun to justify theatrical release, even if it lacks something of the populist appeal that irked some of the author's peers.
Born into an Uptown Manhattan family that practically defined "patrician," Plimpton learned as a child to deflect high expectations by keeping people laughing. His lack of seriousness got him kicked out of Exeter; if we're left wondering about the full extent of his transgressions there, we do learn they were outlandish enough that his younger brother was denied entry to the tony school.
Recruited by Peter Matthiessen (one of many fellow writers interviewed here) to edit The Paris Review, Plimpton is credited with sculpting the transcripts of the Review's famous author interviews. (The journal's early connection to the CIA is ignored.) He ran the Review from his apartment on East 72nd Street in New York, and we're told that his awkward foray into TV hucksterism (making ads for everything from garage-door openers to video games) was all to keep the money-losing publication afloat.
But Plimpton's most visible work was his brand of New Journalism -- arranging to take on unusual, often athletic jobs for a short period so he could report on the experience. We watch him box a world champ and play goalie for the Bruins, hear of his pro-football exploits (chronicled in the best-selling book Paper Lion) and see his nervous face as, sitting in on percussion with the New York Philharmonic, he's scolded by conductor Leonard Bernstein. The film acknowledges those who dismissed Plimpton as a dilettante, but he comes across here as a man characterized by gameness, who understood the value of being an outsider and saw how to turn that into distinctive journalism.
The ironies of Plimpton's life are handled delicately, made just obvious enough for viewers to mull themselves. Least discussed is the fact that, having gone to lengths to put himself in the middle of so many novel experiences for journalism's sake, he never wrote about the most novel, and newsworthy, of them all: Standing near Robert F. Kennedy when he was shot in 1968, Plimpton helped disarm and restrain the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan.
One wishes only that Bean and Poling had interviewed a few more of the athletes and other professionals whose worlds Plimpton briefly entered. We see just enough to suspect that having such a charismatic outsider in their midst was as fun for them as it was for Plimpton's many fans.
Production Company: Joyce Entertainment, Offices of SPECTRE
Directors-Screenwriters: Tom Bean, Luke Poling
Producers: Tom Bean, Terry McDonell, Luke Poling, Adam Roffman, Fernando Villena
Executive producers: Phyllis Alexander, Dennis Joyce, Antonio Weiss, Kris Meyer
Music: Mark De Gli Antoni
Editors: Casey Brooks, Maya Hawke
No rating, 88 minutes