As solid as the 30 For 30 series has been thus far, often the documentary filmmaking itself has been either distractingly quirky or merely functional, with the subject matter determining the success of an episode more than whoever's putting it all together. Despite that, 30 For 30 has been responsible for two of my favorite documentaries of the year so far (and this has been a hell of a year for docs). First came Steve James’ No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson, which deals smartly with race, justice, and cultural bias; and now Brett Morgen’s June 17, 1994, which is as exciting and playful a piece of media analysis as anything I’ve experienced since Negativland’s cola wars deconstruction Dispepsi.
So what’s the big deal about June 17th, 1994? Well, it was the day that Arnold Palmer played his last round ever at the U.S. Open, the day that the World Cup opened in Chicago, the day the Rangers celebrated winning the Stanley Cup, the day the Knicks played Game Five of the NBA finals against the Houston Rockets, the day Ken Griffey Jr. tied Babe Ruth for the most home runs hit before June 30th, and—oh yeah—the day O.J. Simpson was charged with double homicide and fled through the streets of Los Angeles in a white Bronco. The Simpson story dominated the day, though the major networks and ESPN covered everything else that was going on as well, while jumping back to L.A. for frequent updates. For June 17, 1994 Morgen starts in the morning and rolls forward, showing how the various stories piled up on top of each other and even commented on each other.
Actually, Morgen starts even earlier, with Simpson’s speech at the Pro Football Hall Of Fame induction ceremony in 1985, where he thanked his new wife Nicole for helping him adjust to life after football. Then Morgen lays the groundwork for the significance of the various stories in a quick-cut montage of soundbites from the Simpson murder case, the Rangers’ run through the NHL playoffs, and so on, ending with a barrage of sports and news anchors on June 16th saying what’s going to happen “tomorrow.” But of course they have no real idea. The parade? Yes. Palmer’s farewell? Yes. World Cup and NBA playoffs? Sure. But Simpson’s bizarre fugitive run? No one could’ve predicted that.
Really it’s misleading of me to refer to the opening of June 17, 1994 as a “montage,” because the whole episode is one long montage. Morgen uses no voice-over narration, no new talking-head interviews, and only a few on-screen titles (mostly at the beginning and end). Instead, he cuts together short snippets from the day’s various broadcasts, including footage from the pre-air feeds when reporters were primping and cracking jokes. He also pulls up pieces of old commercials and interviews to show how the media narrative on the likes of Simpson and Palmer (and even the Rangers and the Knicks) had been shaped prior to 1994.
Morgen has a lot of points to make here: about the banality and ineptitude of the 24-hour news media; about the inadvertent ironies of everyday life; and about how aspects of our shared cultural history may get lost in our memory but stored (haphazardly) in our archives. But the absence of narration or reflective commentary means that Morgen doesn’t overplay his hand. Some of his edits are meant to provoke a clear response, as when he cuts from Angelenos cheering on O.J.‘s Bronco from the side of the freeway to New Yorkers cheering at the Rangers parade to a little kid in the crowd saying that now that the Rangers have won the cup “I can die in peace” to the LAPD on the phone urging Simpson not to kill himself. That sequence—which lasts less than a minute—is funny and chilling in equal measure, and a clever commentary on the madness of crowds. But Morgen doesn’t make that commentary directly; June 17, 1994 is more like a piece of music, manipulating the audience’s emotions but ultimately leaving us alone to have our own personal response to the composition.
Myself, I had multiple responses. I was surprised by how much I’d forgotten about the Bronco chase; I didn’t remember Simpson’s quasi-suicide letter, read to the media by his friend Robert Kardashian (!), and I’d forgotten about Bronco-driver Al Cowling’s dramatic call to the police, beginning with, “This is A.C.… you know who I am!” Also, given my usual presumption that the quality of news and sports media has declined precipitously over the last 10 years, I was surprised (not unpleasantly, actually) to realize that things were already plenty lousy in 1994, judging by the way reporters leapt onto the air with misinformation and space-filling hype. (One network has a psychologist analyzing Simpson’s farewell letter to offer an opinion about his guilt or innocence. There’s some hard news for you.)
The cleverest conceit of June 17 is the use of footage collected on the day but largely unseen, like the pre-broadcast feeds and material captured by the cops. Some of it is just fascinating for its rarity, as is the case with the shots from the Los Angeles News Service chopper just before it picked up the Bronco, or the tapes of the LAPD negotiator bargaining with Cowling and Simpson. And some of it serves a larger purpose in the documentary, as is the case with the footage of Bob Costas trying to figure out the best way to integrate Simpson coverage into his NBA hosting duties.
As I mentioned above, June 17 is partly about the way singular events can disrupt the media’s attempts to shape a narrative. Morgen shows a clip of Arnold Palmer crying in an interview after his last U.S. Open hole, and it’s clear that the raw emotion (and the long silence) puts the reporter standing next to him at a loss. Morgen also shows a montage of “man on the street” interviews in which people express their sympathy and support for Simpson prior to the day of his arrest—before the “beloved celebrity gets railroaded” narrative shifted. The contrast of the no-longer-long-suffering Rangers with the still-to-be-long-suffering Knicks is also key, since on June 17th, the sports media was still shaping the Knicks story as a tale of redemption and release.
For me though, the most stunning passage in the whole documentary involves the Griffey home run. Mariners play-by-play man Chip Carey catches viewers up on the latest O.J. Simpson news—namely that he’d just issued what sounded like a suicide note—and then blithely segues to Griffey, who promptly homers. Carey makes the comparison to Ruth, steering the story in its expected direction, establishing this moment as one step on the road to a potentially historic season for Griffey. What Carey doesn’t know, though, is that in two months, the Major League Baseball Players Association will go on strike, canceling the World Series and ending Griffey’s run. And so the narrative will shift again, no matter how much the media tries to stay out in front of it.
June 17, 1994 is structured like a day of television as experienced by a restless channel-surfer, and yet it becomes about the different ways the media tries to hold our attention and keep our hands off the clicker, by making every moment into something we can’t afford to miss. That approach to storytelling is summed up by a reporter outside the Simpson estate, arrogantly wasting the nation’s time by muttering into his microphone, “It looks like something… is going to happen… right now.”
-Ordinarily I’d post this review after the episode airs, but since there’s no real way to spoil a documentary like this, and since I want to make sure people are aware of how good June 17, 1994 is, I’m posting early. 30 For 30 airs tonight at 10 p.m. eastern and will be repeated multiple times in the weeks to come. Please watch.
-If I see historical footage of the Knicks in the playoffs, I have a foolproof way of remembering whether they won a title that year or not. If Patrick Ewing is in the footage, I know they didn’t.
-I was shocked to hear two fairly raw O.J. Simpson jokes dug out of the feeds from June 17th: one by a Kansas City Royals announcer before air (“Did you hear that O.J. Simpson’s at the U.S. Open? He already has two under.”) and another by an intruder at the Knicks’ post-game press conference (“If OJ Simpson doesn’t cut to the left, do you think he makes it?”) Almost as much as news coverage, sick jokes are on the frontline of our cultural experience. And yet they’re so quickly forgotten.
-Something else I’d forgotten: after Simpson was allowed to go into his house and call his mother, he went to the bathroom and had a glass of orange juice before he was officially arrested.
-Crazy coincidences abound: Arnold Palmer and O.J. Simpson once did a commercial together for Hertz. And Morgen has the evidence.
-One minor complaint about this documentary: the music’s a little too wall-to-wall. That said, the use of Talking Heads’ “Heaven” over the closing sequence is pretty brilliant.
-They’re not booing. They’re saying, “Juuuuuuuuice.”
-My wife made an excellent point after we finished watching the screener of this episode, which I was tempted to steal as my own, but I have to give her the credit. She noted that often our memories of historical events from our lifetimes get boiled down to the one or two images that get shown on news programs and documentaries in perpetuity. In the case of the Bronco chase, it’s usually a single overhead shot of the Bronco, pursued slowly by police cars. All the rest—the people cheering, the chaos by the gates of Simpson’s house, the media babble—tends to fade.
-For the record, on June 17th of 1994, I was waiting tables in Nashville, TN (either at Applebee’s or Dalt’s… I worked shifts at both back then), working part-time as a critic/reporter for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene, and preparing to move in a month up to Charlottesville to be with the woman whom I’d marry two years later. (Who would then go on to make astute observations about television in the easy chair next to mine.)