More Than Just a Game: 10 Must-See Sports Documentaries
This past year has put much into perspective for us, especially the place sports have in our hearts and in our lives. We rounded up ten sports documentaries that we believe convey how sports build character, foster important relationships, and become crucial to our identities.
1. Last Chance University (2016)
Last Chance U taps into the heart of sports and reminds us to ask why we started playing. While Junior College athletes are largely overlooked, Last Chance University tells the complex and engaging stories of these athletes struggling to create opportunity and ultimately a better life for themselves. For many of these young men, if they don’t stay on the field or on the court, there is no plan b. In the latest installment, Last Chance University: Basketball, we quickly become attached to each of their stories and care for their success-especially for Deshaun Highler, a talented athlete who recently lost his mom. The editing style of the series grants each player the agency to create action within the larger narrative, but it also allows audiences to understand the how and why for their actions. We understand what makes them the player they are and what traumas they bring onto the court. The slow-motion zoom-in portraits strike a particular nerve for viewers and make us ask the question, are these the bad guys or the good guys? More importantly, is it ever that black and white?
2. Momentum Generation (2018)
Momentum Generation captures a pivotal moment in the sport of surfing. The film explains the essence of the sport: finding connection and experiencing joy. It takes us through the journey of a generation who reclaimed a sport that had been decidedly belonging to the Australians. The casual yet deeply personal interviews with each surfer feel as if we’re hearing the story over a couple of beers and entering the universe of a deep brotherhood. The beautiful cinematography conveys the spirituality and transcendent quality of being out on the water and connected to nature.
3. The Last Dance (2020)
Perhaps the most anticipated sports documentary series of contemporary time, The Last Dance evokes a specific sports nostalgia. The series has become a global phenomenon and stirs the same universal hysteria that Michael Jordan and The Chicago Bulls of the 90s did. As much as it deconstructs the mythos and celebrity of Michael Jordan, it also constructs a fuller picture of what made The Bulls, The Bulls. From Scottie Pippen’s often overlooked and undervalued contributions to Dennis Rodman’s rise to cultural icon, we come to understand the power and impact that all of these men had on American sports and beyond.
4. Sunderland Till I Die (2018)
Sunderland Till I Die is about a team that can’t stop losing. But more importantly, it explains the deep love and generational loyalty for a team despite its failures. The Netflix series gives American viewers access to a storied program and to a sport that has deep European roots. Sunderland Till I Die gives viewers a 360 look at what it takes to prevent a football club from relegation and hopefully towards promotion. Viewers meet the chefs, scouts, see the business decisions, almost-deals, hirings, and firings behind what goes on on the pitch. Viewers feel the heart of working-class Sunderland and see that it is so much more just a match.
5. Being Serena (2018)
Being Serena is a documentary dedicated to celebrating Serena as an athlete, a woman, and a mother. While the world of American sports and media has relentlessly painted a prejudiced picture of Serena, this series reveals her journey to motherhood, back onto the court, and how this journey has made her athletic success that much more profound. In her words, and gentle narration, we get to see what the reality of being Serena is truly like and the strength she constantly shows. Because she is a woman, not in spite of, is why Serena is the greatest American athlete of our generation.
6. Hoop Dreams (1994)
In the 1994 documentary, Steve James follows two promising young basketball players from the inner city of Chicago trying to make it to the NBA. Viewers become deeply engrained in the lives of the two boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee. In the boyhood-style documentary, we watch them grow from 14 to 18 and face racial inequality, economic struggle, injury, teenage pregnancy, all in an attempt to follow the footsteps of Isaiah Thomas. The documentary even features a powerful cameo of Spike Lee. But perhaps the most impactful part of the film is its ending, which leaves viewers without resolution. While we want a winner and a loser, a black and white conclusion, but it leaves us in a gray area, like life often does.
7. The Art of Flight (2011)
With an electric soundtrack and sweeping panoramic wide shots, The Art of Flight conveys the beautiful insanity that is professional snowboarding. Viewers are able to understand the sheer size, scope, and danger that these athletes are hooked to. The documentary tracks snowboarders chasing adventure after adventure, finding the craziest mountains to snowboard, everywhere from Alaska, to Canada, to Patagonia. Watching these athletes risk it all and do what has never been done before, inspires us to be a little bit braver in our own lives, for the pursuit is always worth it.
8. At The Heart of Gold (2019)
It was so much worse than we thought. HBO’s deep investigation into Larry Nasser and the systemic sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics reveals the price we are willing to pay for gold. The series explains how a sport and athletic institution, where young women are conditioned to keep quiet about their pain, was the perfect breeding ground for the evil that is Larry Nasser. It does an acute job at explaining the psychosis and ego of Nasser and how he was able to commit his crimes with parents in the same room. With home footage and painful testimony given through one on one interviews, the true loss of innocence and bureaucratic cover-up come to light. But the biggest takeaway of this documentary is the resilience and strength of these women. To watch woman after woman, stand up against Nasser in the courtroom, use their voice and reclaim their power, is a far greater act of strength than any of their accolades in the world of gymnastics.
9. Icarus (2017)
In the Netflix documentary, Icarus viewers watch amateur cyclist, Bryan Fogel, follow a doping program. In this feat of insanity, we see how faulty the system truly is, and learn the details of how to beat drug testing. In the process, Grigory Rodchenov, WADA lab director who did all the testing for the Sochi Olympics takes center stage, and it is revealed how much danger he is truly in. The film shows the global impact of the doping scandal and how deeply rooted the scandal truly is.
10. Free Solo (2018)
Free Solo takes viewers on a journey to understand a sport that is largely not understandable and to relate to an athlete who is widely unrelatable. As average humans, it becomes difficult to understand and connect with a guy who so boldly tempts death; but the documentary bridges that gap. The National Geographic documentary charts Alex Honnell's attempt to climb Yosemite's El Capitan. But as we quickly learn, there is no such thing as just attempting to climb El Capitan. Viewers walk away in sheer awe of Honnell and a greater appreciation for the history and art of Free Soloing.