You Don't Know Bo debuts tonight on ESPN at 9 p.m. Eastern.
You Don’t Know Bo: The Legend Of Bo Jackson opens with the iconic quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” ESPN’s latest documentary takes that sentiment to heart, though I suspect not quite how John Ford and company originally meant it. You Don’t Know Bo isn’t especially interested in delineating between the truth and the myths surrounding Jackson, who in the late ‘80s became a superstar in both baseball and football. The documentary is largely happy to repeat the tall tales about Jackson, with the interviewees both offering their own possibly exaggerated memories and passing along the even wilder stories they once heard about Bo’s youth. Then again, that’s precisely the point—as far as You Don’t Know Bo is concerned, just about everything said about Bo Jackson is completely true, with the lone possible exception being his supposed leap across a 40-foot gorge. And while the documentary’s often uncritical eye means it comes dangerously close to being Bo Jackson hagiography, the movie mounts a largely persuasive argument that, if anyone does deserve such mythmaking, it most assuredly is Bo Jackson.
That argument is strongest when Jackson is allowed to speak for himself, both through new interviews with the man himself and especially through archival footage of his feats on the football and baseball fields. For someone too young to have seen Jackson play, these highlights are a revelation, a potent encapsulation of just why Jackson remains such a legend. While about 70 athletes have played in both the National Football League and Major League Baseball, there are only two in the modern era who were active in both leagues simultaneously. The other, Deion Sanders, was a Hall of Famer in football but only ever a marginal baseball player—a remarkable accomplishment in its own right, but there’s a reason why Sanders’ two-sport exploits are remembered more as an interesting footnote to his football heroics. Jackson, on the other hand, was legitimately great in both sports, the only person ever to make both sports’ all-star games, and someone who certainly seemed like he had a chance to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, with an outside shot at Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame as well. Indeed, You Don’t Know Bo brings in a pair of Jackson’s Hall of Fame teammates—Howie Long of the then-Los Angeles Raiders, George Brett of the Kansas City Royals—and these two players who reached the absolute pinnacles of their respective sports talk about Jackson in the same awed tones as all the other talking heads.
The documentary repeatedly paints Jackson as a reserved, fiercely proud man, and the filmmakers allow the modern-day Jackson to keep them at arm’s length. The stories he tells of his youth are more anecdotes than reflections, and he is never asked to confirm or deny the remarkable stories shared by his high school coaches and the tall tales passed along by the rest of the interviewees. When Jackson mentions that he can’t really watch football anymore, the filmmakers don’t ask him to expand on this potentially illuminating point. He talks about how his visit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while still a senior at Auburn got him ruled ineligible for the remainder of his final college baseball season, and he claims in no uncertain terms that the Buccaneers intentionally misled him about the NCAA’s non-existent approval of the trick in order to force him out of baseball and into football permanently. That might well be true, but this is an instance where there are definitely two sides to the story, and You Don’t Know Bo doesn’t feature anyone to speak for the Buccaneers. There’s also no discussion of how the Kansas City Royals reacted when Jackson decided to start playing for the Raiders, particularly whether they were concerned about him suffering a football injury that would curtail his baseball career—which, of course, is exactly what happened. You Don’t Know Bo keeps its focus square on Jackson, which makes the relatively superficial treatment of its subject problematic.
Rather than attempt a character study, You Don’t Know Bo builds its narrative through a handful of Jackson’s most memorable games: the 1982 Iron Bowl where Jackson led the Auburn Tigers to a long-awaited victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide; his 1986 MLB debut against legendary pitcher Steve Carlton; the 1987 Monday Night Football game in which he effectively ended the career of loudmouth Seattle Seahawk Brian Bosworth; the 1989 MLB All-Star game where he hit a lead-off home run; the 1991 Raiders playoff game in which he suffered his devastating hip injury; and his 1993 comeback game with the Chicago White Sox. These serve to organize the otherwise disconnected barrage of incredible clips, not so much constructing a narrative as serving as exemplars for all the times Jackson did something seemingly impossible. You Don’t Know Bo takes an impressionistic approach to Jackson’s career, eschewing almost any discussion of quantifying his talent in favor of the sheer visceral joys of a stream of Jackson highlights. The documentary aims to recapture the initial experience of watching Bo Jackson rewrite what it meant to be a modern athlete, instead of offering a more dispassionate appraisal of Jackson’s actual impact on the two sports. That’s probably the right decision, but it does give You Don’t Know Bo a decidedly insular feel.
You Don’t Know Bo is a slick documentary, never more so than when it spotlights the “Bo Knows” campaign for Nike’s cross-training shoes. While the “Bo Knows” ad is a vital part of Jackson’s story—it helped cement Jackson’s persona as the ultimate do-everything athlete, and it is a pretty damn great commercial—the documentary’s interviews with the Nike ad executives behind the campaign often take on the uncomfortable feeling of one bunch of marketing guys paying tribute to another bunch of marketing guys. It’s the only time that You Don’t Know Bo really wanders from its subject, and the brief spotlighting of Michael Jordan and Spike Lee’s Nike commercial seems to lose the overall narrative thread. You Don’t Know Bo also tries out some visual flourishes that don’t entirely work, most notably semi-animated recreations of Bo’s childhood feats and illustrated introductory graphics for peripheral players like George Steinbrenner, Al Davis, and Bear Bryant. While I’m certainly not asking for the hyperkinetic gimmickry of previous 30 For 30 entries like Broke, these animated asides are a weird fit for the documentary’s otherwise straightforward construction.
You Don’t Know Bo is far from perfect, but Bo Jackson was about as close to perfect as any athlete could hope to be. The subject matter is so compelling—and, as the talking heads point out, unfamiliar to younger viewers like myself—that it can overcome the at times bland presentation. The film is at its best when it has specific games to build around, with Jackson’s Monday Night dominance against the Seahawks and his impossible throw-out of speedster Harold Reynolds particularly well-presented. The documentary lives down to its title in its skin-deep examination of Jackson the person, but it remains a strong encapsulation of Jackson the superstar, the spectacle, the impossible-made-possible. That’s more than enough.
- Beyond interviews with Jackson and his coaches and teammates, You Don’t Know Bo features a variety of outside talking heads like Chuck Klosterman and ESPN personalities Mike Greenburg and Marcellus Wiley. They don’t do a bad job, certainly, but their presence doesn’t help with the movie’s overly slick, glossy tone.
- One interesting point the movie makes is that if Bo Jackson came along any later, he almost certainly would have been under suspicion of using steroids. Indeed, the only athlete in my lifetime who I would say did the impossible on as regular a basis as Jackson was Barry Bonds in the early ‘00s—seriously, look at the numbers he put up in the 2002 World Series, just for a start—and of course he was, as the experts say, roided to the gills.
- The section on Jackson’s attempt to return to baseball with an artificial hip—an effort that won him his only major professional award, the Comeback Player of the Year—is largely elided over, with Greenburg dismissing it in as Jackson simply being a shadow of his former self. While that is undoubtedly true, a little more time devoted to his twilight struggles would have been nice.
- In case anyone is worried: Yes, Tecmo Bowl is discussed. There could probably have been more discussion of whatever the hell ProStars was, but I imagine that’s being saved for its very own 30 For 30 entry.