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Although it isn’t branded with the 30 for 30 banner, ESPN’s epic 10-part The Last Dance, with its vein of ’90s nostalgia/resonance, almost demands an immediate comparison to 2016’s Emmy- and Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America.
So let’s get that comparison out of the way: With O.J.: Made in America, it was possible — even essential — to offer that “it’s about sports, but it’s not about sports, man” proviso to lure viewers who were hesitant to revisit the story. Ezra Edelman’s documentary was about everything, with football as only one frequently small stitch within the tapestry. Jason Hehir’s The Last Dance is about sports. While it points to the undeniable cultural influence of Michael Jordan and his dominant Bulls teams and examines leadership, American heroism and other subjects, it’s mostly about a basketball star and his journey.
AIR DATE Apr 19, 2020
In that respect, Last Dance probably isn’t as deep or as likely to win converts among the initially uninterested. But if you come in with even a modicum of enthusiasm, it’s a tremendously engaging, ridiculously fun assemblage of spectacular basketball footage and reasonably introspective interviews with almost everybody you’d hope to hear from on the subject.
The general focus of Last Dance is the 1997-98 Bulls season, as Jordan and company went after their second three-peat in an eight-year period. The season was marked with adversity — the looming prospect of Jordan’s second retirement; general manager Jerry Krause’s not-so-secret desire to remove Phil Jackson as coach; Scottie Pippen’s justified impatience with his below-market salary; Dennis Rodman’s increasingly distracting eccentricity; and a league of budding superstars wanting nothing more than to dethrone the king.
It was a season with a healthy number of built-in narratives, but you’re probably asking yourself, “Is it enough for nearly 10 hours of programming?”
The simple answer is “Nah.” Hehir, veteran of a slew of 30 for 30/ESPN Films docs, including The Fab Five (plus HBO’s very good Andre the Giant), knows this, and Last Dance is a deceptively complicated construction. Each episode uses a linear march through the 1997-98 season as its spine, while weaving multiple parallel narratives, slipping forward and backward within the timeline so that many episodes offer backgrounds for various key Bulls stars — Pippen, Rodman and Jackson get focal episodes; Dickey Simpkins and Luc Longley, in the eight episodes I’ve seen, do not.
Just as he was the undeniable lodestar of the 1997-98 Bulls, Jordan is never far from mind in Last Dance. Even when his backstory isn’t the hook of an episode, a third parallel storyline tracks the Bulls up to and through their first championship run and the intervening year and a half in which Jordan became the world’s most famous minor league baseball player.
It’s here you realize that Last Dance may be a stand-alone, limited docuseries, but it’s also something of a Voltron formed from bits and pieces of material already covered in previous ESPN projects — from Ron Shelton’s oddly disappointing Jordan Rides the Bus to Rodman: For Better or Worse to Bad Boys, about the bruising Detroit Pistons teams that preceded the Bulls’ run. Mostly it avoids feeling redundant.
Hehir’s interview access is superb, with in-depth conversations with most of the prominent Bulls players and coaches over the years, plus owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Krause died in 2017, but he did enough other interviews over the years that he feels at least generally present. There’s an added poignancy from interviews with David Stern and, especially, from Kobe Bryant talking about the 1998 All-Star game and his relationship with Jordan — heartbreaking echos to Jordan’s own tear-filled tribute at Bryant’s recent memorial.
Testimonials about Jordan’s legacy come from myriad journalists; NBA luminaries like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Patrick Ewing; and outside luminaries like Barack Obama, labeled as “Former Chicago Resident” in his chyron (Bill Clinton, dubbed “Former Arkansas Governor,” chimes in on Pippen).
The obvious centerpiece is an exhaustive, multipart interview with Jordan, which is both a highlight and an inevitable minor letdown because Jordan is and always has been guarded, and more than half of his answers here are somewhere between “canned” and “familiar.” Hehir makes some smart decisions to shake Jordan out of his presentational ruts, the best moments coming when he’s able to show Jordan footage from other interviews — like Thomas justifying the Pistons not shaking hands after the Bulls beat them in a key Conference Finals matchup — which not surprisingly brings out the competitive fire in a man who needs to be the best at everything, even the best documentary interview subject. It’s a card I honestly wish Hehir had played more often.
That isn’t to say Hehir doesn’t challenge Jordan, who directly addresses things like his reputed gambling addiction — a camera crew followed the 1997-98 Bulls team, yielding much of the doc’s best footage, an astonishing amount of which involves Jordan placing bets on almost everything — rumors that his 18-month retirement was a stealth suspension, conspiracy theories about his father’s death and Space Jam.
Last Dance is not hugely revelatory on these various issues. Perhaps that’s because there really was no conspiracy to suspend Jordan from the NBA and perhaps that’s because insufficient time has passed to allow for full candor. Or maybe it’s just one of those things that you have to accept from a documentary made “in association with NBA Entertainment,” an association that probably opens the door to a lot of game footage that has me prepared to make the following assessment: Michael Jordan was an absurdly entertaining basketball player to watch in action, and many of his best games and plays are analyzed in depth; I also can’t rule out that if enough critics say M.J.’s ESPN doc isn’t as good as O.J.’s, he won’t insist on doing another documentary spilling the beans on everything just to get another win.
The last two Last Dance episodes weren’t finished in time to get to critics — nobody tell me how the 1997-98 Bulls season ended! — and it’s possible that they will make some of the bigger-picture leaps that the documentary doesn’t make. There’s a lot here about Michael Jordan as a corporate brand, from his Nikes to his endless other endorsements, but maybe it’s actually appropriate that Hehir doesn’t seek or find political or sociological meaning in Jordan’s stardom. The man who famously refused to endorse a Democratic congressional candidate running against Jesse Helms because “Republicans buy sneakers, too” — Jordan says the quote was taken out of its jesting context — probably can’t be judged by the standards of today’s activist NBA.
But the outside world doesn’t exclusively need to be ideological, and I frequently found myself lamenting how utterly “Chicago” — as a city, a personality and a state of mind — is excluded as a character here.
I hope that some of that will come up in the last two hours, but if all those episodes provide is a lengthy debate of whether or not Jordan pushed off of Byron Russell, that will probably be fine, too. The Last Dance isn’t O.J.: Made in America, but what is?
Episodes air Sundays at 9 and 10 p.m. ET/PT on ESPN starting Sunday. Co-producer Netflix will distribute internationally.
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