'In Search of Greatness': Film Review

Lively doc bucks conventional wisdom.

'Red Army' director Gabe Polsky explores alternative paths to athletic achievement.

How do you get to Wimbledon? Practice, practice, practice. The old joke about the route to success is upended in Gabe Polsky's In Search of Greatness, in which a trio of sports heroes and a pair of thinkers suggest that all the practice in the world can only go so far for those who don't love what they're doing. Though some of its insights might sound like common sense from the outside, the doc sees many places where they go against the grain; it's likely to provoke some "aha" moments even for viewers who couldn't care less about Super Bowls and World Cups.

From its opening credits, the film signals a desire not to be seen as just another doc exalting heroic athletes: We see a barrage of scientific imagery (especially the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge) and hear audio of lectures by the late philosopher and Zen promoter Alan Watts. Aphorisms from the latter will be a key ingredient in the film, whose tone and style are more reminiscent of political or science docs than those about sports and entertainment.

Wide receiver Jerry Rice, soccer icon Pele, and hockey's Wayne Gretzky sit for long interviews with Polsky, wearing dressy suits in imposing locations. (In Rice's segments, the camera moves slowly in a sometimes distracting way, making it look as if he were on a greenscreen set.) Setting up his thesis, the filmmaker starts by catching them all admitting they weren't the most talented players of their eras. Referring to the "combines" where aspiring pro athletes are put through physical tests (the film might've explained this setting for the non-sports-nuts among us), Gretzky speculates that he "would've been ranked the lowest" in many measurements people now see as important. But while he might've been a relatively slow skater, he says, "getting to loose pucks is... a different kind of fast." And that kind of fast was something he obviously had.

The film spends some enjoyable time talking about how exotic, hard-to-quantify skills like Gretzky's are built up indirectly in a player's youth, in ways that drill-sergent-style training can't replicate. Authors Ken Robinson and David Epstein talk about the "implicit learning" that happens when babies and children aren't being taught in obvious ways; language, for instance, is acquired simply by living around adults as they speak. And a kid whose parents force her to practice piano three hours a day becomes a different kind of player than one who casually picks up any guitar in a room, noodling aimlessly while life goes on around him. If the learning isn't natural and fun, it's hard to become a genius. Or as Watts puts it, in a quote that might be a summation of moral philosophy on The Good Place: "If you do it for a result in the future, you're not doing it."

As he moves through variations on this principle, Polsky sometimes gets in his own way. Trying to visualize what his three stars are telling us about their mental states during a game, he goes crazy with dorky graphics; using Michael Jordan as an example of the usefulness of an overcompetitive nature, he hits us with silly clips of Bill Bixby turning into the Hulk.

But stylistic missteps do little to mar the essential message, a bit of wisdom humanity has to remind itself of anew in every generation, minting new cliches like "It's the journey, not the destination." That advice probably works best when it's not presented as a road map to the Hall of Fame. But Greatness reminds us it sometimes leads there.

Production companies: Gabriel Polsky Productions, IMG Films
Distributor: AOS
Director-screenwriter-producer: Gabe Polsky
Executive producers: Michael Antinoro, Alan Polsky, Liam Satre-Meloy, Will Staeger
Director of photography: Svetlana Cvetko
Editor: Marco Capalbo
Composer: Leo Birenberg

PG-13, 77 minutes