ESPN 30 for 30: Trojan War (2015)

Directed by Aaron Rashaan Thomas

Volume III of ESPNs 30 for 30 series has begun, and I am excited to delve into the new sports documentaries produced by this series. As with any extended series of films (re: my Bond review earlier today) there will always been bad films, mediocre films, and good films in the series. When the volume is so great (this is the 61st film in the official series, not counting the shorts and shoot offs in the series), there quality of output will vary with each release. But there always remains the great potential of a remarkable film, and most of the films to this point have, at the very least, been some form of entertaining, informative, or a poignant mix of both. With Trojan War, the series looks to Aaron Rashaan Thomas to chronicle the meteoric rise of the University of Southern California football program under coach Pete Carroll, and its eventual downfall.

Trojan War is a perfect example of a 30 for 30 film for people wanting to get into the series. In many ways, it encapsulates what is so great about the series, while also painting a good picture of the style and level of quality seen within the framework of what producers are trying to do with these films. Following a unique documentary style, while still staying true to the rules of the genre, Aaron Rashaan Thomas draws the parallel between the USC football program of the early 2000s and the location of the school’s campus, Los Angeles, California, home of Hollywood, showbiz, and the stars. Thomas takes us to his alma mater, USC film school, which is just as famous as the Trojans on the field, by framing the picture in acts, showing screenplay cues on screen, and using famed producer Larry Turman (The Graduate) to liken the production of USC football by Pete Carroll to that of a film producer.

This cinematic device seems somewhat juvenile on the surface, at least that’s how I first reacted to it, but it turns out to be one of the better framing devices Thomas uses to let the story unfold. It would be easy to compare Trojan War to The U, a film from the first volume of the series which chronicled the rise and fall of Miami (FL) in the college football ranks, and the comparison would be apt. However, what Trojan War lacks in comparison is the same amount of swagger, style and explosive scandal. It is The U toned down. Comparing it to The U, Part 2 would be a better comparison. For one, the Trojans stint upon the top of the college football world was short lived. True, they won back to back championships in 2003 and 2004, but their demise in the championship game the following year against Texas, often cited as one of the best games in college football history, also stems from the loss of star players such as Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White. True dynasties transcend a single class.

Thomas develops the film at a good pace, intercutting between performance on the field as the Trojans rose to the top with side stories which revealed more about the background of the players (players used in a dramatic sense, not athletic). Carroll, Bush, Leinart, and White all get their time, which helps to show the fuller picture of the program before passing any judgement on the fallout from the improper benefits to Bush, which resulted in NCAA sanctions. A high profile program in a high profile city with no professional team certainly opened the doors to create a unique atmosphere for college kids, and one which was bound not to last. Allowing Hollywood stars to attend games on sidelines, practices, and even team meetings exposed these amateur college kids to more temptation than they could resist. I am sure there are unsavory and illegal things going on at most high profile programs around the country, but this type of atmosphere proved too tempting to Reggie Bush.

The argument can be made as to who is at fault for the Bush allegations which led to vacating many of the wins by the program, including one of the national titles. Was it the kid, the agent, the coach? All seem at fault in my eyes. There is a culture of winning and doing the right thing that must be developed to lead a successful program, and Carroll lost the reigns just enough at USC to put the program at a precarious position, one from which it has been unable to recover to this point as the coaching carousel continues. Trojan War is a fairly standard delivery of the type of story 30 the series attracts, good but not great. But Aaron Rashaan Thomas also gives it just enough of a unique style and flair to make it an interesting entry into the series, and one worth checking out for college football fans. It falls somewhere in the middle of the 61 films thus far.

*** – Good


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