' ' Cinema Romantico: The Last Dance

Monday, July 06, 2020

The Last Dance

The ten-part ESPN/Netflix co-production “The Last Dance” opens and closes with Michael Jordan, in some luxurious oceanfront property, smoking a cigar and staring out across the water. It is his world, in other words, both as a transcendent athlete and unprecedented celebrity. If, however, these images would seem to suggest the greatest basketball player of all time as content, they go hand in hand with another shot in Episode 8 where Jordan, after losing a playoff game to a trash-talking former teammate, sits in the locker room, looking less like a basketball player than a mob enforcer, smoking a cigar and wielding a baseball bat. He explains that anyone can talk trash when the game is over but real men talk trash when it’s 0-0. Perhaps, but what is “The Last Dance” if not Jordan talking trash, over and over and over, long after winning, ensuring he gets the last word over everyone? Indeed, throughout director Jason Hehir plays footage of other interviewees in the doc for Jordan on a laptop and then lets his subject literally get the last word, refraining from serious follow-up questions. That’s why it’s crucial to think of Hehir less as a director than an autobiographical ghost writer, not challenging or even really investigating Jordan but acting as a myth-cementing agent.

The documentary’s title is culled from Bulls coach Phil Jackson christening the team’s sixth title season, 1998, as The Last Dance in light of the curious, premeditated decision by the front office to essentially disband the incredible dynasty at year’s end, championship or not. This looming break-up informs the entire movie but is never exactly explained, then-owner Jerry Reinsdorf let off the hook in interviews, seemingly because Hehir – nay, Jordan – are intent to wholly lay blame on General Manager Jerry Krause. This portrayal is not entirely unfair, the doc credibly arguing that Krause wanted to remake the organization as a way to demonstrate his own genius in contrast to Jordan’s. But because Krause passed away in 2017, he is unable to speak for himself aside from isolated clips, mostly rendered as a short, paunch punching bag with innumerable scenes of MJ ridiculing his GM right to his face, an emphatic and emphatically un-empathetic portrayal of Krause as the black hat to Jordan’s white hat.

Part of the doc’s ostensible allure is behind-the-scenes footage, heretofore unseen, that was shot by a film crew throughout the 1998 season. It is often underwhelming, sometimes incisive, occasionally even poetic, in its own way, like an out of nowhere inadvertent black and white beer ad where prominent players imbibe post-game Miller Lites. Mostly, though, this footage just feels tacked on, never the point, and it is easy to imagine a more lyrical filmmaker, like Brett Morgen, chiseling an aesthetically fascinating documentary strictly from the archives. There is a shot of 1993 Jordan lazing on a hotel couch, hiding from the adoring, frenzied throngs outside that all on its own says more about the literally frightening scale of his popularity than anything anyone dutifully recites on camera.

No, “The Last Dance”, in taking us through all six championship seasons as well as the interval when Jordan retired to play baseball, prefers the typical ESPN house style of alternating between banal post game press conference-type insights and game action, the latter sometimes scored to SportsCenter anchor footage, literally rendering it as a glorified highlight reel, compelling in the manner of a history book providing the broadest overview of a pivotal era. If Hehir transcends this basic approach, it is in how he jumps around in time, admirably refusing to tell a linear story. (I’d like to know how many people who struggled with the time jumps in “Little Women” also struggled with these.) By doing so, he finds both historical rhymes, how emotional and physical burnout culminating In Jordan’s first retirement also culminates in his second, suggesting the price he pays for such hyper-focus and celebrity, as well as its echoes. No footage is as moving as the 1998 All Star Game where we see a young Kobe Bryant juxtaposed not only against an older Jordan but a retired Bird and Magic, rendering it less as a locker room than the Lodge.

There are even rhymes the movie does not quite see, like the Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas’s shifting story on why his teamed walked off the floor without exchanging traditional post game handshakes in 1991, none of which Jordan buys, unintentionally paralleling Jordan’s own shifting story about his “Republicans buys sneakers too” quote, which he has said he never said but seems to indicate in “The Last Dance” that he did say…just as a joke. If these time jumps periodically allow for other players to take center stage, like MJ’s wingman Scottie Pippen and his 1998 contract dispute and legendary eccentric Dennis Rodman and his going on walkabout to Vegas with then-girlfriend Carmen Electra, each one of them nevertheless ends framed through Jordan’s eyes, diagnosing Scottie’s selfishness or being the hero in bringing Dennis back to be with the team. They are satellites in “The Last Dance”, orbiting around him. Even Steve Kerr, hero of Game 6 in the 1997 NBA Finals, who gets the best and most moving individual passage in Episode 9, puts a period on it with a self-deprecating story about #23.

[*Removes Critic Hat* *Puts On Dennis Rodman Spurs Jersey From High School* While the doc portrays the 1996 Finals turning on Seattle coach George Karl ostensibly slighting Jordan, that six-game series sealing the title for the legendary 72-win Bulls had as much to do with the play of Dennis Rodman. Read any contemporary account. *Takes Off Dennis Rodman Spurs Jersey From High School* *Puts Critic Hat Back On*]

That isn’t entirely wrong. As “The Last Dance” outlines, Jordan entered the league onto a Bulls team that was nothing and remade it in his image, imploring those around to keep up and get out. Still, despite overly focusing on him, this is not exactly a complex portrayal of Jordan the man, more content to skim the psychological surface and allow brief overviews of the more unsavory parts of his past to suffice. Talking head interviews not there to scrutinize, never mind dispute, but mostly just nod along with what we already know or what Jordan.

If “The Last Dance” marshals any argument about Jordan, other than He Sure Was Good At Basketball, it's that his pathological intensity directly contributed to his success. The story of Michael Jordan punching Steve Kerr in the face at practice, dutifully recounted here, is canon, but Hehir gives time to every grudge and every slight, real or imagined, and every on-court reprisal and in-practice dust-up. Scott Burrell, a hardly remembered member of the 1998 squad, becomes a major supporting player, a frequent target of MJ’s ire in NSFW language in an attempt to build his unheralded teammate into a more valuable one. It does not work, as Jordan acknowledges, and these bullying tactics are an interesting juxtaposition to Jordan citing his beloved father’s advice about turning a negative into a positive, an irony that goes unnoticed much like those unseen rhymes.

One of the frequent criticisms lobbed at “The Last Dance” involved Jordan’s editorial insight. It is valid and speaks to the documentary’s lack of psychological insight as well as the curious absence of his family, save for a few cursory moments near the end. But then, the lack of his family only underscores Jordan’s sense of self-sacrifice in the name of winning just as his editorial oversight underscores the dictatorial tendencies he also displayed to continually achieve victory. And that’s all “The Last Dance” goes to show, dusting off the old quote that Vince Lombardi may or may not have said about winning being the only thing. Hehir never asks Jordan if it was all worth it. Why would he? The documentary is confirmation that it was.

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