Peter Bart: From Tiger King To Michael Jordan And Obamas, Documentaries Steal Spotlight From Shuttered Movie Biz

Becoming The Last Dance Natalie Wood
(L-R) Michelle Obama in Netflix's "Becoming", Michael Jordan in ESPN's "The Last Dance" and Natalie Wood who is the subject of HBO's "Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind" Netflix; ESPN; Shutterstock

The individual sitting across from me was a veteran filmmaker who was tormented by a tough decision. “The story I want to tell should be made as a doc, not a feature film,” he told me. “But let’s get real: Movies occupy center stage while documentaries sit in the balcony.”

He ended up shooting a feature (more on that later), but in today’s Hollywood, he would have reached the opposite conclusion. That’s because documentaries at the moment are stealing both the audiences and the conversation, and, along the way, acquiring some of the bad habits of the fiction film business — fights over budgets, credits and release dates.

This week, viewers will check out new docs about the future career path facing Michelle Obama, or the mysterious death of Natalie Wood, or the dauntless ambitions of Michael Jordan, or the perils of undercover probes (The Infiltrators). Or they’ll dial back to steamy hits like Tiger King or Free Solo or Three Identical Strangers.

“This is a very liberating time, also fiercely competitive,” observes Sheila Nevins, who after a stellar HBO career now is creating docs about pot, suicide and other live-wire issues for MTV.

With the feature business in a stupor, documentary output is booming, both from established players like Netflix (20 docs and 15 limited series) or new ones like Concordia (Laurene Powell Jobs and Davis Guggenheim) and Higher Ground (Barack and Michelle Obama).

As with fiction films, the quality veers sharply from the crazed (Tiger King) to the pedantic (American Factory). If Tiger King defied credibility, American Factory labored to explain themes that we already know, such as the contrasting expectations of Chinese workers versus their American counterparts.

Becoming, the second film from the Obamas’ Higher Ground, while warmer and more personal, still reflects the wariness of a semi-official presentation intent on avoiding controversy.

Overall, the most demanding reality faced by doc filmmakers often lies in the collision of fiction and nonfiction. While audiences may accept the credibility of documentary archival footage they’re viewing, that narrative may also be embellished by scripted re-creations and voice-overs — hence the growing use of the so-called “hybrid.”

The peril confronting The Infiltrators is heightened by these scripted re-creations. But in Where’s My Roy Cohn?, the montage of witnesses and archival testimonies marshaled by Matt Tyrnauer urgently conveys the warped scenarios to which the title character has been committed.

The sad saga of Natalie Wood, who drowned at age 47, unfolds through interviews (most adulatory) and clips from her many movies, but viewers might have benefited from a re-creation aimed at finally putting the intrigues to rest (Natalie’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, co-produced). On the other hand, The Last Dance, from Peter Guber’s Mandalay Sports, is energized by its behind-the-scenes glimpses of the inner jock world, prompting ESPN to slot in three other new doc projects in its previously empty landscape.

Medium Cool
Medium Cool” (1969) Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, the filmmaker cited at the top of this story resolved his conundrum by creating what would emerge as a feature hybrid. In structuring Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler decided to tell the story of a doc filmmaker, played by Robert Forster, who is desperate to capture on camera the chaos surrounding the Democratic National Convention of 1968.

In doing so, he becomes involved with a woman and her young son who are themselves caught up in the events – scripted characters who become enmeshed in the unscripted violence. The upshot is a hybrid theatrical movie that profoundly moved audiences, but also left some confused.

By contrast, footage of those unruly crowds battling the police and National Guard will soon re-appear in Aaron Sorkin’s forthcoming film The Trial of the Chicago 7. Sorkin’s movie, based on his script, will forcefully present itself as a work of fiction starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton.

By whatever definition, documentaries increasingly are finding acceptance both on television and, before the shutdown, in theaters. Will that phenomenon continue once Hollywood normalizes its release pattern?

“Docs will help fill the void left by the demise of the independent film,” observes one filmmaker. “Docs are less expensive to produce and market, plus they’re a source of pre-tested IP for feature production — witness this week’s casting of Nicolas Cage for the fiction version of Tiger King.”

Far from being relegated to the balcony, as Wexler feared, they are now sharing what remains of center stage.

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