ESPN 30 for 30: George Best: All By Himself (2017)

Directed by Daniel Gordon

Soccer is a blindspot for me, as well as a great number of Americans. The sport has grown in popularity in recent years, but I wonder even how many current American soccer fans know who George Best is, at the very least whether they knew about him when he played? I bet the number is small, but that is what is so great about the ESPN 30 for 30 series: the ability to uncover and expose these stories that many may have never realized happened. With their sister series, Soccer Stories, ESPN did a great job around the World Cup in provided some really good documentaries, including one from Daniel Gordon who directs here. His film Hillsborough is the best of the Soccer Stories bunch, and easily one of the best documentary films ESPN has ever released. So when I saw his name attached to another installment, especially about a soccer player I had never heard of, I was very intrigued.

Everybody in this day and age who is a sports fan has heard of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Most sports fans have heard of Pele. But I wonder how many have heard of George Best, a phenomenal player who comes from a country not necessarily known for its soccer prowess in Northern Ireland. Certainly the British Isles are soccer crazy, but Northern Ireland, along with countries like Scotland and Wales, are just too small to garner the type of global attention as such soccer powers as England, Brazil, Germany, etc. Best was aptly named, the best player in the world. He helped rebuild a broken Manuchester Untied squad, decimated after the tragic Munich air disaster. But like many sports stars before him and especially since, the temptation of women, alcohol and drugs ultimately proved too great, derailing his career.

George Best has a fascinating story, one which Daniel Gordon thankfully took the time to explore over 77 minutes. I think Best’s story can be read in many different ways. The obvious entry is as a cautionary tale for those about to enter the world of fame. Best loved his fame, but he loved it too much, lavishing in its excess. As with anything, excess is destructive, and Best’s excess was destructive to those around him as well as his career. But at the same time, fame can bring a level of isolation few know: the isolation of being someone everybody knows. This condition is unfathomable to me, unable to escape, or find time to just be yourself. Ironically, being known by everybody leaves you in a company of one, thus the title of the film, George Best: All By Himself.

It is an unenviable position, yet everybody envied him. All his talent, all his fame, all his money, all his women, etc. Most people would have happily flipped lives with Best, and yet, as Daniel Gordon so skillfully reveals to us, Best’s life was not one to be desired. There is no flair or original account taken by Gordon here. Rather, the film succeeds in Gordon’s ability to capture the humanity of the story. It’d be very easy for outsiders to see Best’s story and simply say “what a pity”, or to wonder how he could have possibly thrown all his talent and fame away in the manner he did. But those uttering those things haven’t experienced Best’s whole story, they don’t understand the broken nature of his psyche.

Most of these 30 for 30 films are good enough, which sounds harsh, but truthfully they uncover some fascinating stories in the most uninspired ways. It’s often good enough to simply witness them. However, there are some installments, like this one, which seem to get to the core of a story, its humanity, as opposed to just being a superficial scratching of the surface.I didn’t know who George Best was before this film, and perhaps I still don’t, but at some level I connected with both his brilliance and his struggle. That’s good filmmaking. That’s the effect of Daniel Gordon. That’s the result of Best having an interesting enough life to engage in these types of emotions and intrigue. Best should be appreciated for his talent, and sympathized with for his struggles.

*** – Very Good

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