ESPN 30 for 30: Survive and Advance (2013)

Directed by Jonathan Hock

With the national championship game set to tip off tonight between Louisville and Michigan, there is no better time than now to take a moment to look back on one of the greatest stories in NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament history. The charm of what has become known as March Madness is found in the unexpected, the unknown players, teams and coaches grabbing the national spotlight to be the next Cinderella story. And there has never been a Cinderella story quite like the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack, who rode the wave of a tremendous winning streak to not only earn a bid in the tournament, but all the way to the title game where they took down a giant to win the National Championship.

Projected as a tournament team before the season began, despite being under the tutelage of a young, charismatic Italian New Yorker named Jim Valvano, the NC State Wolfpack team suffered an early season loss to one of their experienced team leaders in Dereck Whittenburg, which led to a terrible run of games which set them back behind the 8 ball. Desperate to make it into the tournament, they had to make a run in the ACC postseason tournament just to get in, which meant making it through the defending champ North Carolina Tar Heels, led by Michael Jordan, as well as the powerhouse Virginia Cavaliers led by player of the year Ralph Sampson. But making it through that jungle was just half of their improbable run into the hearts of a nation as they stormed their way through an incredible championship run.

This is the type of story that is impossible to not like, impossible to mess up. The level of emotion and sensationalism that naturally exists in the very nature of this team and this run is overwhelming and any attempt to resist its charm would be futile, with the exception, perhaps, of hated rivals and bitter foes. The single reason why the story is so magnetic is the centerpiece, the coach, Jim Valvano. Before seeing the film, I knew of the team that was not expected to win the championship, but what I didn’t know was the details of how they made it there. But having been such a fan of the inspirational Jim Valvano, his magnetic personality, it is no surprise to see he was able to inspire his team on to victory. After seeing his speech from the 1993 ESPY awards, I became an instant fan, and it is a speech I watch over and over again, looking for a smile and a tear, a full day as Jimmy V would have said.

Many of my complaints from this series do come up in this installment, yet it oddly works in ways unexpected. The first technique is the dreaded roundtable discussion. I often find this a lazy resolution to tell a story, but this time it feels fresh and real s we get to spend time with the players recalling the personal details of the indescribable run. There is something joyous and true about these men sitting down and sharing a laugh and a cry together. The second is the treatment of the story is a simple summary, chronological presentation. Hock shows us the play by play of the remarkable run as it happened, but again, it defies the expected due to the compelling nature of the story, coupled with the colorful commentary featured in the roundtable discussions. Hock gets away with it through the power of the story and that alone. He lets the story speak for itself and it almost ends up being a strength of the film.

Another strength of the film by Jonathan Hock was his ability to make a documentary to Jimmy V, without it being directly about the man whose life was cut short due to cancer. Hock could have very easily fell into an overly nostalgic delivery, featuring interviews with former players and coaches as they reminisce about the great man, but instead he focuses on the players of the team and the achievement. From a strictly fimmaking perspective, Jonathan Hock does nothing special. This is probably the least of his three films in the series (The Best That Never Was, Unguarded), and mostly because he doesn’t do much with what he has. His saving grace is the fact that what he has is a one of a kind moment in history; a moment worth spending some time with during March Madness.

*** – Very Good

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s