'Andre the Giant': TV Review

An engaging, if not always revealing, doc.
4/10/2018

HBO's Bill Simmons-produced doc about the life and death of the wrestling legend is a tremendously entertaining look at the myth, if not the man.

For many culture consumers of my age, Rocky Balboa's fight with a long-haired wrestler named Thunderlips was a thrilling first introduction to Hulk Hogan. Not necessarily knowing how tall Sylvester Stallone was in real life, it was shocking to see Hogan tower above his co-star and toss him around the ring in Rocky III. It spawned research to learn that Hulk Hogan was, in real life, a man that stood 6-foot-7 and weighed over 300 pounds, a behemoth by any standard. No sooner was that discovery made, though, than one would inevitably see Hulk Hogan standing next to a man who made him look as small as Thunderlips made Rocky look.

Back then, it was easy to enjoy and be amazed by Andre the Giant, but it was impossible to process how he could be real. Once you accepted that professional wrestling was fake, surely Andre the Giant also had to be fake in some way, a trick of forced perspective or special effects. The outlandish world that spawned Andre the Giant was deeply invested in mythologizing a man they claimed was 7-foot-4 and weighed 500 pounds and completely uninterested in André Roussimoff, son of farmers living 40 miles outside of Paris.

Some 31 years after the Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant showdown at WrestleMania III, still probably the sport's pinnacle, the reconciliation of Andre the Giant with André Roussimoff is still complicated enough to be the spine of a new HBO Sports documentary from executive producer Bill Simmons and director Jason Hehir. Perhaps ironically, Andre the Giant runs a diminutive 84 minutes — and perhaps predictably, it leans still too heavily on the myth at the expense of the real man. But it's still incredibly entertaining, if not always as insightful as one might crave.

One of the things the documentary mentions about Andre the Giant is that in the early stages of his career, when wrestling was a series of regional fiefdoms and not the contemporary monolith built by Vince McMahon, the outsized star would travel from venue to venue and by never performing anywhere for too long, he would maintain his aura. This points to how immediately and inherently deconstructive it is to see any footage of Roussimoff out of the context that was built around him. So I loved the documentary's early interviews with Roussimoff's brothers, snapshots from his less-gigantic childhood, and fantastic old videos and home movies from a far smaller, but still pretty huge, Andre learning basic wrestling moves and tossing doll-sized normal men around a dingy ring in grainy black-and-white. The documentary is short on people who worked with him in this early career phase, but even narrated by a string of wrestling experts, the evolution of his wrestling personae plays like a fairy tale, gaining embellishment with each nickname, each exaggerated magazine cover, each come-hither promotional poster.

With its subject's relatives mostly stuck at the beginning and ending of the documentary, Andre the Giant spends most of its running time on the period during which he was one of the world's most recognized men, when he helped Vince McMahon build his empire, and almost all of its talking heads are familiar and beloved figures from that empire, people who can give the illusion of knowing Andre the Giant offstage, but can't even pretend to have ever known him when he wasn't Andre the Giant. The result is that these people aren't really demythologizing him at all. They're just constructing a new, parallel mythology, one giving the illusion of revelation but actually reaffirming aspects of the core Andre the Giant story.

And what a glorious parallel mythology it is! Many minutes are spent on Andre the Giant's prodigious appetites, mostly his drinking, with everybody having a different outlandish yarn of the time he drank 20 bottles of wine on a film set (contributed by Rob Reiner), the time he drank 106 cans of beer in a night (contributed by Ric Flair), a regular nightly intake of 7,000 calories of various booze (contributed by doctor Dr. Terry Todd). It's all a little factually sketchy and unsubstantiated, and nobody's being asked to show their work, so it's great fun! Everybody also speculates about his appetite for the ladies, with Flair cackling about his "ring size," though for some reason this is a topic on which nobody wants to get graphic and nobody who actually dated Andre is featured on camera, because there's a limit to how laid bare the documentary wants its subject to be.

Andre the Giant prefers to keep even the disreputable side of Andre's story scatological and family friendly. An amazing amount of time is spent on the smell, logistics and sound of an Andre the Giant fart, and if you thought you didn't need Hulk Hogan's extended impression of said flatulence, you are incorrect. Even his pain or discomfort is illustrated in these terms, like when Tim White, his friend and personal handler and pretty much the heart of the film, tells us about Andre not being able to fit into airplane bathrooms and having to pee in buckets during 14-hour flights.

As Andre's story and health and personal life become sadder and more complicated, it becomes important to remember that the documentary is produced "In Association with WWE." There's a doc to be made on how an ailing Andre was unable to leave the spotlight, unwilling to get treatment for symptoms of his acromegaly, and kept being trotted out as a figure even when he could no longer be an entertainer. Such a doc would posit Andre as an exploited figure. Instead, this version gives us an injury-hobbled Giant, sensing perhaps his impending mortality, sacrificing himself, almost Christ-like, for the rising wrestling messiah Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III — at which point the story ceases to feel like it's even his anymore. In a space of five minutes, Hogan talks about the contrivances he was willing to embrace to shed tears during the Piper's Pit appearance that introduced the Hulk/Andre feud, and then expects us to believe his red eyes are genuine when he spews oft-repeated tall tales about how he didn't know until he got into the WrestleMania III ring whether or not he was going to win. McMahon has several externally emotional beats that also feel more like attempts to burnish his own legend.

Somehow the inherent Hollywood artificiality of Andre the Giant's participation in The Princess Bride makes all of the interviews about that classic film come across as having a higher level of veracity. Maybe because they are not now and have never been on the WWF/WWE payroll, Reiner, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright and Billy Crystal all come across as less invested in protecting Andre's canonical image.

Speaking of said image, the absence of any reflection at all on how Andre posthumously became the centerpiece of a modern urban art movement is a strange exclusion, because it's not like Shepard Fairey to avoid opportunities for self-promotion.

None of my skepticism about the documentary's failure to cut quite deep enough or to get enough distance from its subject is close to damning. Andre the Giant was so captivating a figure, and Andre the Giant captures so much of how and why he was impossible to look away from. It's just that the unexpected pathos and humanity that he often brought into the ring leaves me also craving more of a man who, it could turn out, was just a myth wrapped in a bigger myth.

Premiere: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)