What the hell has happened to 30 For 30? What started as an innovative, template-busting experiment in personal, auteur-driven documentary filmmaking has, in the backstretch, turned into slick, cookie-cutter hagiography. The recent succession of league-produced snowjobs—MLB with Four Days In October, NASCAR with Tim Richmond: To The Limit, and NBA with Once Brothers (which, admittedly, I’m mostly alone in not embracing)—have been thoroughly dispirited and even good entries like Steve Nash and Ezra Holland’s Into The Wind have been very conservative stylistically. Lately, we’ve been getting hour-long cut-and-paste docs that are completely impersonal and/or doggedly conventional.
To my mind, the series hits a new low with Marion Jones: Press Pause, John Singleton’s choppy, awkward, incurious attempt to revive the image of a disgraced athlete. And I say that as someone who’s entirely sympathetic to the selective and hypocritical nature of Marion Jones’ conviction for lying to federal agents about performance-enhancing drugs. There’s nothing wrong with Singleton aligning himself with Jones, but there’s a difference between championing a misunderstood and wrongly disgraced athlete and giving yourself over to the sort of thoughtless image rehabilitation Singleton indulges in here. In his rush to lionize Jones, he misses the complicated business of PEDs, and the woefully inconsistent way the rules are enforced in Olympic sports and in the courts. He also misses fresh angles on the media’s role in anointing/destroying icons, the “bad men” who corrupted Jones’ life (who are denoted as “bad men,” but never brought up specifically), and Jones’ own motives in participating in the documentary in the first place. With Press Pause, he’s less filmmaker than propagandist.
The powerful footage of Jones in front of the U.S. District Court in 2007, addressing the media after submitting a guilty plea over lying about steroid use, presents a strong place to start. Whatever your feelings about Jones, this was not some rote act of contrition, but a soul-baring torrent of regret (“I have betrayed your trust”) over the many years she used steroids and managed to slip the rigorous drug-testing for it. The use of PEDs—and the denials of same—is, of course, widespread across all sports, but for Jones, the most celebrated female athlete of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, the consequences of being caught were far more devastating than they would have been for someone of a lower profile. Her big mistake wasn’t a moral one but a legal one: People who use PEDs naturally have to lie about it, but lying to federal agents in the course of their investigation is a big no-no. And for that, she took a heavy-handed six-month prison sentence.
Singleton picks up with Jones after she’s served her time, had a third child with her second husband (affable Bajan sprinter Obadele Thompson), and started prepping for a dramatic and unlikely revival as a professional basketball player for the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock. Like Jones, he’s interested more in looking forward than looking back; in fact, the rudimentary details of Jones’ early career are shuffled to the back half of the documentary, as if they were an afterthought. He questions her about the ordeal of federal prison—the agonizing drive with her husband, her 49 days in solitary for fighting, et al.—and follows her around to various events where she tries to turn her mistakes in lessons for the kids. He queries a few reporters, ex-UNC basketball friends, and fellow Olympians about her missteps and comebacks. But mostly, he presents her as a great mom, a great athlete, a great Christian, and a great role model—which isn’t hard to do, given Jones’ extraordinary presence and charisma.
The PED issue is a difficult one on so many levels—and Jones is such a potentially interesting case study, given how little access other high-profile users have allowed the press—that Press Pause counts as an enormous missed opportunity. It’s not clear whether access was conditional or Singleton was merely disinclined to question Jones’ past actions, but the film is embarrassingly compromised and weak. Jones may well deserve a second trial in the court of public opinion—and the case for questioning the case against PEDs has been made, brilliantly, in the 2008 documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster*—but without a single witness for the prosecution (or even a tough question or two), Singleton’s trial is a sham.
• Quick, someone make a documentary about Edwin Moses. An accomplished athlete and the most compelling interview subject here by far.
• I should note that Jones’ use of PEDs does little to diminish my awe of her athletic abilities. It’s likely that she wouldn’t have won all those medals without them—and who knows how many others women on the blocks were using also—but she’s pretty incredible. A rare triple threat: A world-class sprinter and jumper, a professional basketball player, and the Babe Ruth of hitting Singleton’s softballs out of the park.
• Great to see Nolan Richardson—former Arkansas men’s basketball coach and architect of a pressing defensive scheme known as “40 minutes of hell”—back in the game as Jones’ coach with the Tulsa Shock. Tough first season, though: 6-28. Ouch.