ESPN 30 for 30: The ’85 Bears (2016)

Directed by Jason Hehir

The objective in sports is to win. To be the best. Sure, there is plenty that sports can be good for, plenty that can be learned from participation in sports, but once you get to the level of professional sports, there is only one thing that matters: winning a championship. For the 1985 Chicago Bears football team, winning seemed inevitable with the amount of talent, confidence, and coaching that had come together to form the team. Some have gone as far as to call that team the best team in football history. Sports are a wonderful thing to argue over: which team is better, which player, which era, what strategy is best, what has to be done to win. The major enjoyment of sports is often the opportunity to argue for “your” team. Bears fan are certainly eager to call “their” team the best there ever was, but this review, and this film, is not intended to make that argument. The ’85 Bears doesn’t make the argument, it makes the assumption. This reviewer will choose to abstain from comment on the topic.

But I shall have plenty to say on the merit of the film itself, from Jason Hehir, who has contributed to the ESPN 30 for 30 series before with The Fab Five and Bernie and Ernie. As the Super Bowl approaches this Sunday, it seems fitting that ESPN would return to one of the most famous Super Bowl champions in the past for their latest 30 for 30 film, and they roll out the red carpet for these stars to tell their story. At the center of the film seems to be the legendary defensive coach Buddy Ryan, and his incredible relationship he forged with his players, who wrote a letter to their owner, George Halas, pleading to keep the defensive coordinator. But the film also focuses on the relationships and personalities among the players, and of course Head Coach Mike Ditka, his public persona in Chicago, and relationship with the team.

For such an exciting, explosive team being profiled, the resulting film is surprisingly boring at times. The resulting documentary merely feels like it is going through the motions and ticking all the checkboxes on what has become known as the 30 for 30 formula. There are personalities which make certain segments interesting, in particular Jim McMahon and his stories, and Steve McMichael and his intensity and passion whenever he talks about, well, just about anything. But the glue that holds the film together is Buddy Ryan, whose frailness highlights what the film should ultimately be about. The moments spent with Ryan, especially as he shares them with former player Mike Singletary are poignant and hearken back to a time when things were perhaps better, when there was glory in their relationship. Now they have a lasting friendship. It’s in this relationship we see the lasting effect of such a season and such a team. The price that was paid for glory, and what actually lasts from such an achievement.

Sadly, the rest of the film does not reflect this awareness, going off in so many directions that the lack of narrative focus becomes a major detriment to the pace and effectiveness of the film. For such a renown and celebrated team, even the season review section of the film felt slight and incomplete. For this reason, for someone not alive during this unforgettable season, the presentation failed to convince me of the teams position at the top of All Time NFL teams. I think much of this can be attributed to the “hero worship” style of the film, which includes Vince Vaughn as the narrator of the film. Vaughn’s delivery and presence adds to the ultimate perception that The ’85 Bears only stands as a film made for the fans of the team, by the fans of the team, in order to further glorify and reminisce.

Stranger still was the films penchant for irreverance, especially as it pertained to their own guys. First and foremost the film celebrates itself and this team, I don’t want to confuse this point. But then there are comments where teammates rag on Doug Flutie for his being a “midget”, and it being a horrible decision by Ditka to play him in 1986 when McMahon was injured. Ditka was also criticized by the team for somehow not getting Walter Payton the ball at the goal line in the 1985 Super Bowl to give him a touchdown. But what was perhaps the most surprising, was how players indicate Walter Payton, for whom the NFL “Man of the Year” award is named after, and perhaps the most famous and talented player in Bears history, was sulking after winning his only Super Bowl of his career for not scoring a touchdown. This type of shaming of a a celebrated man who died far too young is unfortunate, as is this inept film.

**1/2 – Average

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