ESPN 30 for 30: Youngstown Boys (2013)

Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist

Youngstown Boys marks the third entry into the 30 for 30 series by the Zimbalist brothers (The Two Escobars, Arnold’s Blueprint). Each of their first two films, one of which is a short, were brilliant entries, exploring the films subjects with a certain curiosity and care that brings forth the best in documentary filmmaking. Their curiosity, their hunger to find the whole truth, and not just what their interview subjects are willing to give them, sets the Zimbalist brothers apart when it comes to the 30 for 30 series. Their passion brings forth not only an entertaining style, but also a complete one. The completeness of some of the films in the series is lacking. Often featuring great stories with great ideas, the filmmaking is often the culprit which keeps it back from being a great film and instead reserves a spot in the mediocre range instead.

With this in mind, this film is the perfect storm for me. Having grown up and lived 22 of my 26 years in the Columbus, Ohio area, an Ohio State football story hits very closely to home, especially one concerning former coach Jim Tressel and star running back Maurice Clarett. As a high school student with nothing better to do than cheer passionately for my Buckeyes, I saw the two bring the Ohio State program back to prominence in the 2002 season, when, as a Freshman, Clarett helped lead them to a National Championship. I also know far too well the off the field issues and controversies that followed, for Clarett as well as Tressel. Far more interesting is how the Zimbalist brothers show their side of the story, instead of the one painted in the media.

There are plenty of talking points I could hit here, and discuss at length, but I will limit myself instead to the bigger picture the Zimbalist’s are describing in the film. They point towards the manipulation and politics of collegiate athletics, and far less so the athletic exuberance and passion for which these students purse their sport. At the time, Clarett was painted a villain by both the Columbus and national media, seeing him as a greedy, lazy young man who didn’t care about school, and just wanted to make money in the NFL. Gene Wojciechowski’s article in ESPN the magazine began the downfall of Clarett, and the eventual downfall of his father figure of a coach.

This film becomes a voice for Clarett, at a time long after he needed it most. As an 18-19 year old kid, no one was willing to listen to his side of the story. Did Clarett make mistakes? Absolutely he did. Did he compound them and fall into a downward spiral? Absolutely he did. But what makes the film equal parts uplifting and depressing is the redemption story that no one outside of Columbus and viewers of this film know about. Clarett has moved on from the debacle, despite his coach/father figure failing to fully back him up for fear of losing his job, only to lose his job a few years later for doing exactly what he should have done for Clarett, stand up for his players. Clarett went back to school, got his degree, has become a clean cut man, a good father, and a spokesperson for the success of the criminal justice system, the rehabilitation of a troubled young man.

Life dealt Clarett a rough hand, but he has managed to do more with it than most in his position have accomplished. The story propels the film to great heights, but without the determination of Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, placed in the wrong directorial hands, a story like this very easy could have fallen flat in faith, emotion and effectiveness. But instead, the film comes off far more polished than most in the series, with a singular vision. The Zimbalist’s knew what story they wanted to tell, they put in the work to get the interviews and footage they needed, and in the end they deliver a finished product which, while perhaps not as good as their previous entries, is still a strong enough effort to blow most, if not all, of the other Volume II entries clean out of the water. This is what the series should strive towards.

***1/2 – Great

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