ESPN Soccer Stories: Hillsborough (2014)

Directed by Daniel Gordon

My venture into the ESPN Soccer Series of films is quite tardy considering its initial release came last spring in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup held in Brazil. However, it also seems fitting that my tardiness is started off with a film like Hillsborough, one of two feature length documentaries in the Soccer Series. I must say up front that my knowledge of soccer (and especially its history) is extremely limited, and as such I will provide no insight into how I likely remember the events depicted or described in the series. I am not the source of “fact-checker” and can only take these films at face value. But all indications are that the tragedy at Hillsborough found solace and resolution at a very tardy date relative to its impact on not just the soccer world, but also in Sheffield in England in general. Families went years without resolution.

For those, like myself prior to Daniel Gordon’s film, who were too young (or not yet born) in order to see the media reaction/coverage of the tragedy at Hillsborough, in April of 1989, 96 people lost their lives as the result of overcrowding at a soccer match in Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. The match pitted Liverpool against the Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi-final. In anticipation of the match, Liverpool fans gathered at one of the entrances, and as a result they were bottlenecked into the stadium and herded like cattle into the fans pens at one end of the stadium. The issue is that spectators could not move between “pens” and as a result the overcrowding caused fans to be crushed, trampled, and tragically killed.

Such a disaster is hard to swallow, especially as I sit here, unintentionally, writing this review on the most tragic of days, September 11. Even harder to swallow is the “why” of the tragedy, which all indications are could have been avoided with better crowd control. One of Daniel Gordon’s more brilliant filmmaking choices was the open the film with a succinct summary of the events that day which led to the tragedy. A viewer like myself, or even someone aware of the tragedy can clearly see what went wrong, and who could potentially be to blame for poor crowd control. The brilliant stroke here is exposing the viewer to the truth prior to showing them the process it took to get there.

It took years for officials and investigations to get where Gordon takes us over the first 45 minutes of the film. When the “summary” section of the film concluded, I glanced at my watch and was surprised so much of the film remained, thinking the chronicling of the event seemed pretty clear. However, I was taken on a heartbreaking journey along with the families and friends of the deceased the remainder of the film, as in reality the truth was not found until YEARS later. Unfathomable. So many semantics, theories, false trails and bureaucratic politics which provided little truth and little resolution to those most closely affected by the tragedy.

Hillsborough is more a film about cover-up and politics than it is about the tragedy itself, which is itself a tragedy. Gordon shows a sure hand in covering the details, and his thoroughness is appreciated in a final product which may not stun or excel on any particular level, but clearly informs and pays tribute to those who lost their lives that April day in Sheffield. Few films in the ESPN documentary catalogue seem as polished or complete as Gordon’s finished product here. As I said, it may not be the most entertaining of installments, but it ranks right up there as one of the better made films of the series, and a film which exposes what good documentary filmmaking is all about: thoroughness, and an attention to detail which can not only inform the viewer, but also paint a complete picture.

***1/2 – Great


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