What does it say about the current state of entertainment that three of the best premieres at Sundance this year were of television docu-series? After the success of events like “OJ: Made in America,” “Finding Neverland,” “Lorena,” and “America to Me,” it makes sense that Sundance has become a launching pad for major television documentary events, but they’re becoming so accomplished that they’re almost starting to overshadow the film premieres. Way more people will be talking about this very distinct trio of TV gems this year than a vast majority of the films that premiered this year. I’m not here to pit film vs. TV again, but just noticing an undeniable trend. Discuss what that means among yourselves.
It started on opening night with the nearly 4-hour premiere of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s excellent “Love Fraud,” which will air on Showtime later this year. The saga of Ricky Scott Smith is a stunner that will have people talking like they do about the best true crime documentaries that have appeared over the last few years. (It seems like there's a new one on Netflix every weekend.) Ewing and Grady are there as this con man is hunted across the country by a take-no-bullshit bounty hunter and some of the women he conned. For two decades, Smith has left a wake of not just broken hearts but empty bank accounts, marrying multiple women across the country and then stealing from them. How does he keep one step ahead of the law? Why does he keep destroying lives with no concern for his actions? And how can he be stopped?
Ewing and Grady deftly slide back and forth between the history of Smith and the immediate hunt to find him. What results is a remarkable momentum that builds up as you get angrier and angrier at this loathsome human being and become more involved in his capture. As private investigators follow him around Kansas, you’re like a participant in a hunt, waiting for him to slip up, worried that he’s going to get away. By allowing these women that he has screwed over to tell their stories direct to camera, we become a part of the crew trying to find this guy. It’s like we’re in the back seat of the car, and the adrenaline is more similar to a thriller than a standard documentary. My only advice to Showtime would be to show it consecutively – don’t break this up over four weeks. It’s the kind of thing that’s meant to be watched at once, like it played at Sundance. Yes, 200 minutes is long, but people binge Netflix shows that long all the time (and it’s still shorter than “The Irishman”), and this is one of the fastest 200 minutes you’ll see all year.
Another documentary that requires your patience premiered at Sundance this year in Marina Zenovich’s phenomenal “Lance,” about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. He even says in the revealing doc that the word ‘disgraced’ is usually used to describe him nowadays, so I’m just doing my duty. Zenovich mostly allows Armstrong to tell his own story, and the result is a fascinating look at a largely unapologetic man. To get right to the point, Armstrong fully believes that’s he paid for his sins with the endorsements he’s lost and the lawsuits he faced. As someone points out, that’s like believing you paid your dues after robbing a bank because you had to give the money back.
“Lance” hits all the major beats of a bio-doc, including Armstrong’s early years and where he's at today. It’s easy to forget how young he was when he became a household name, winning seven Tour de France titles in consecutive years. As we all know now, he was illegally doping to give himself an advantage. A lot of cyclists were. What always bugged me the most about Armstrong’s story was not the doping but how aggressively he tried to destroy anyone who suggested he may have a chemical advantage. Zenovich gets there and Armstrong answers most of her questions. Overall, she deftly walks a fine line, never turning “Lance” into a hit piece but also never quite allowing him to write the story either. And she gives the entire Armstrong saga new layers, particularly in the story of how much good Armstrong did for cancer research. As someone deeply impacted by his work in that arena says, his doping shouldn’t diminish what he’s done for cancer research, but his cancer research shouldn’t excuse his doping. He’s a fascinating, but often elusive and hard-to-read subject, and what’s so remarkable about “Lance” is how much it allows us to see this very public figure in a new light.
Finally, there’s the latest from “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James and the geniuses at Kartemquin Films, the document of a year in Chicago called “City So Real.” James and his team set out to chronicle what a mayoral race would look like in the middle of a racially-charged, nationally-known case. The shooting of Laquan McDonald changed Chicago forever, and James was curious how Mayor Rahm Emanuel could run for reelection in the midst of the controversy and subsequent trial of his shooter. And then Rahm dropped out, leading to the largest field of mayoral candidates in the history of the Windy City. At that point, “City So Real” became something even more ambitious, a study of how 2019 politics work in a city known for its dirty tricks. We all know how the story ended, but it’s fascinating to see the races take the shape, the mistakes the candidates make even early on, and the constantly shifting landscape of Chicago politics.
Once again, what separates “City So Real” is its filmmaker, a man who simply approaches his form differently. I’ve said before that James is one of our most empathetic filmmakers, someone deeply interested in human stories, and that comes through in the casual footage of “City So Real” – the shots of protesters in the McDonald case, voters at parades being wooed by candidates, people going about their lives all over the city, etc. “City So Real” could have been a deeply dry look at the candidates, but James and his team are constantly placing them against the greater backdrop of the city and its people, who James knows better than any filmmaker alive. He is a Chicago filmmaker through and through, and he brought that energy to Sundance again this year. Every Sundance could use a little Chicago energy.