Directed by Jim Podhoretz
With the successes of not only ESPN’s acclaimed and now Oscar winning 30 for 30 O.J.: Made in America, but also Netflix’s Making a Murderer, the long form documentary seems to be in vogue these days. It creates a larger canvas on which the filmmaker can detail their story and deliver their narrative. Having not seen Making a Murderer, I cannot comment on that film, but I found O.J.: Made in America to be a masterpiece in storytelling and filmmaking within the documentary format. With the 30 for 30 series, I have often found myself wanting more detail, longer runtimes to allow the filmmakers to further explore their stories, instead of merely scratching the surface. With their latest, Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies, ESPN has once again extended the run time, for better or for worse.
The NBA is a massively popular professional sport in the United States these days. The history of the game has not always been so booming. Without an exhaustive Ken Burns documentary to highlight the history of the game, suffice it to say that with the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Los Angeles vs. Boston, Black vs. White, which took place in the 1980s helped put professional basketball on the map. It made the game fun and exciting again at a time when the NBA was struggling, hoping to break through. Matching up three times in the NBA Finals in that decade, those series would help shape not just the legacy of the teams, but of the league and the players involved.
Presented in three parts, Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies gives us the history of the two teams up until the 80s, and then delves into the three epic matchups in great detail, attempting to add some social context into the narrative. Where this film falters is in its ambitions to follow in O.J.: Made in America‘s footsteps. That is a bold strategy, and one which does not quite work for the installment. As I mentioned, I have often wanted far more detail and in depth exploration of many of the topics for the past 30 for 30‘s. However, with Celtics/Lakers, director Jim Podhoretz appears to be forcing the issue. The depth is not all that interesting. Celtics/Lakers still appears to be mostly chronological game analyses with talking heads, the traditional tried and true formula for the series.
So extending the run time merely means more of it, not necessarily a greater quality, or a finer overarching theme. Issues of race and socio-economical status differences between the two cities, or even racial groups in general across the country are shoehorned in to bring about a false facade of social importance to the film which neither add anything the nature of the rivalry nor convince on any level. These asides are quickly forgotten and ultimately add very little to the experience, bloating the already 4+ hour runtime. It seems a little silly to even see that number written out. 4+ hours. It is certainly not a story that appears worthy of such an extended look.
However, the analyses of the rivalry from the various talking heads, along with the game footage and stories is well worth the price of admission for the right kind of fan. I am a mega sports fan, though I will admit I am less keen on the NBA when compared to some other sports, but Podhoretz and his team do a great job of exploring the rivalry and the moments that made it so special. For passionate NBA fans, Celtics/Lakers captures an important part of the game’s history. For those disinterested, there are a few human stories to capture your attention, but otherwise this is a film which fall squarely in the mold of past installments in the series. It’s just a little bit longer, again, for better or for worse.