'30 for 30: Trojan War': TV Review
The rise and fall of the USC football team under Pete Carroll is too recent for insight.
With the University of Southern California football team in the midst of an already disappointing season and embroiled in a hugely unsightly coaching upheaval, the timing seems perfect for ESPN's 30 for 30 franchise to be kicking off its third volume of sports documentaries with Aaron Rahsaan Thomas' Trojan War.
Unfortunately, premiering on Tuesday (Oct. 13) night, Trojan War follows way too close on the heels of the Pete Carroll Era for anybody to be sufficiently introspective and the chronicling of the dynasty's rise and fall is missing just about every key interview or insight you'd actually want. Still, for USC fans, the memory of better times will cause the requisite euphoria, and for USC haters, the knife-twisting recap of the 2006 Rose Bowl and its aftermath will cause the requisite schadenfreude — even if both reactions deserved a better documentary.
With Trojan War, 30 for 30 is reheating one of the franchise's most venerable topics, the Icarus-like nature of college sports excellence, particularly in football. SMU football was targeted in Pony Express, University of Miami was so out of control that Billy Corben got The U and a sequel and Ohio State and Maurice Clarett had linked journeys in Youngstown Boys. There also have been at least a few player-centric versions of this story in micro, focusing on Brian Bozworth, Marcus Dupree and Todd Marinovich.
Screenwriter and USC Cinema alum Thomas' approach is the convincing (but already endlessly made) parallel between USC football and Hollywood and the much less convincing and, at times, barely even supported parallel between the coaching approach brought by Carroll, who resurrected Trojan football after a decade's malaise, and the duties of a Hollywood producer.
The Hollywood comparison is a breeze. Under Carroll, USC was effectively Los Angeles' NFL team and luminaries like Denzel Washington, Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell were constantly present on the sidelines. In the documentary, Snoop is joined by a slew of USC School of Cinematic Arts professors, as well as filmmaking alums including John Singleton — notable also as the director of the worst 30 for 30 ever made, an embarrassing canonization of Marion Jones. But the producer comparison is defended entirely by The Graduate producer and USC employee Lawrence Turman, who rambles on about his own storied career with little interest in football and only occasional connection to the bigger story.
The Turman talking-head scenes feel like either outtakes from a different documentary or attempts to produce a structure that nothing else in the documentary can sustain.
A problem is uncertainty over which part of the Fall of Troy should be the focus. It's easy to show footage of the 2003, 2004 and 2005 USC football team and generate amazement at Matt Leinart's precision, at LenDale White's blend of power and dexterity and at the otherworldly body control and speed of Reggie Bush. And Leinart, White and an assortment of USC role players from those teams are happy to talk about the good times.
Following the Hollywood movie blueprint, Trojan War features onscreen text in screenplay format and an in medias res opening with both the 2006 Rose Bowl and the 2005 Heisman presentation ceremony. After about 40 minutes into the 77-minute doc, we catch up to the opening and think that the Fall is going to be Texas' upset win in one of the greatest games ever played, a triumph orchestrated by Vince Young. As remarkable as Young was in that game, he's an inert interview subject and offers no details on the key drives that spurred Texas' comeback. Nearly as bad is the perpetually unrepentant Pete Carroll, who was never going to admit to in-game errors, including his defense's inability to adapt to Young in the closing quarter of the big game. And since that Rose Bowl was, indeed, a defensive collapse in the last six minutes, the lack of even a single player from that defense is striking. So Thomas can't sell the 2006 Rose Bowl as the fall and he then conspicuously ignores that Carroll led USC to three straight top-five finishes and Rose Bowl wins after that. No, USC didn't win another national title, but it wasn't like the collapse came immediately.
The real fall, of course, was the Reggie Bush scandal and subsequent crippling probation, mere seconds ahead of which Carroll fled to the NFL. It's here that you actually get Lendale White coming down hard on Carroll, even if he's basically the only one willing to do so. Carroll has nothing new to add and Thomas makes no visible effort to push him. Mike Ornstein, a sports marketing agent involved in the Bush controversy, has nothing to contribute either. USC's athletic director at the time was Mike Garrett and he's nowhere to be seen. And you knew that Reggie Bush was never going to be involved in a documentary like this, either to celebrate his greatness or offer any words, truthful or otherwise, on what did or didn't happen and which USC coaches, players, officials knew or didn't know. Maybe in 10 or 15 years, Bush and Carroll might be ready to get candid on the record, but not so close to the kerfuffle that USC's football team still doesn't have a complete roster of scholarship players.
Perspective is important. Even if you think that Thomas wanted to avoid any sort of even casual condemnation of what the NCAA deemed a lack of institutional control, the director missed out on that count by rushing the documentary and not being able to include any of the subsequent evidence of how NCAA prejudice impacted USC's penalties. It's a bad sign when a documentary arrives requiring a sequel to cover events that are already a year or two old.
Thomas is content to rehash the same pieces of the hero-making narratives that we knew a decade ago -— Yes, more stories about how Leinart was a fat, cross-eyed child — without fresh insight into what came after. The most shocking moment of the documentary is a practically buried clip of Lance Armstrong saying he hopes that with the passing of time, USC is able to welcome Bush back and remember the good times. It's a self-serving statement about athletic prowess, delusion and redemption that is breathtaking and unexplored.
Perhaps the most important brand in ESPN's stable of original programming, the 30 for 30 name has become diluted since the project was initially announced as 30 documentaries to celebrate the network's 30th anniversary. The network has done 30 for 30 shorts, 30 for 30 soccer films, a series of ESPN Films Presents documentaries that most casual viewers can't tell apart from 30 for 30 and the Nine for IX documentary series. I've always felt that even an average or below-average 30 for 30 documentary represented admirable longform sports journalism, but Trojan War represents the kind of rushed, not-fully-baked storytelling that the initial volume of docs largely avoided.