ESPN 30 for 30: June 17, 1994 (2010)

Directed by Brett Morgen

For my generation the event in history which everyone knows where they were is 9/11. I was in 8th grade math class when we found out that the Twin Towers had been struck by an airplane. Every generation seems to have that one moment, some larger than others, and some people have had multiple experiences with that. The JFK assassination was a big one in 1963. One of the earlier films in the marathon makes the case that the death of Len Bias the day after he was taken as a first pick in the NBA Draft was one such event. June 17, 1994 is also one of those days in which everyone remembers where they were, even if that date does not mean anything to them. As a 5 year old, a week away from my 6th birthday, my memory might not serve me correctly, but I certainly do seem to remember being at a UNO Pizzeria watching a white Ford Bronco race down a California highway.

Yes, I am talking about the day when the whole country was captivated by the O.J. Simpson saga. To be perfectly honest, when it was happening I did not even know that he was a legendary Hall of Fame running back who had played football for USC, and the Buffalo Bills in the pros. I thought he was just some guy who supposedly had killed his wife and was running from the cops. If anything, this film has reminded me of the whole story and more than just the image of Simpson racing away down the highway. But let me throw this at you as well. June 17, 1994 was the day the New York Rangers had their celebration parade after winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in over 50 years. It was the day when Arnold Palmer played his last round of U.S. Open golf. It was the day when the New York Knicks faced off against the Houston Rockets in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. It was the same day when Ken Griffey Jr. belted his 30th home run, tying Babe Ruth for most before June 30th. It was also the same day the FIFA World Cup opened in Chicago.

These other events are largely overshadowed by the O.J. Simpson saga which lasted all day from when the authorities expected him to surrender himself to when they announced they didn’t know where he was, to when the chase occurred on the highway with the white Bronco. Director Brett Morgen, who has been nominated for an Academy Award (On the Ropes), utilizes the massive amounts of archive footage captured from the day in both sports and news, and does it masterfully. There has been much ado about the documentary film Senna from this year and its use entirely of archive footage to tell its story, and I applauded the film for doing it too. What a unique, and effective, way to present a story, and I do recommend to check out that film, but Morgen’s film does exactly the same thing, and you know what? I think he does it better.

Morgen’s film is probably aided by the fact that it is only 51 minutes in length, but there is also less set up used to set the platform for the film that with Senna. And I do want to move on from the comparison. June 17, 1994 is a masterclass in editing as well, meshing news story with sports broadcast and back and forth in a chronological timeline of events from the day which creates as fast paced a film as this series has seen. The style is definitely what sets it apart from the other films in the series to this point, but it is also set apart in its subject matter which is some serious stuff and more connected than probably anyone knew that fateful day.

It was the end of a great career for Arnold Palmer, perhaps the greatest to play the game of golf. It was the end of the drought and a great season for the New York Rangers. It was the end for O.J. Simpson and his run as a famous, much beloved celebrity. And I do think that is what I will take most from the film apart from it being a dynamite great film: people loved Simpson and they were in such a state of disbelief at the situation, pleading their hearts to trust he was not guilty, even when such an act as this all but indicated he was guilty of murder. The film contains itself within the day of June 17, 1994, passing no judgment on how things went down later on in the case. It captures more than any other film the dramatics of sports, as well as the natural dramatics of life, which even the greatest screenwriter in Hollywood couldn’t pen. As Tom Brokaw said that day, “A modern tragedy and drama of Shakespearian proportion being played out live on television.” And the film lives up to it.

**** – Masterpiece


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