In Search of Greatness Review
What makes a great athlete? Or rather, what goes into the making of a great athlete? Director Gabe Polsky aims to answer these questions in his new documentary In Search of Greatness. Three legendary athletes, hockey player Wayne Gretzky, footballer Pelé and American football player Jerry Rice feature in extensive interviews that seek to reveal exactly what makes them so great at their respective sports.
At times, In Search of Greatness feels like the greatest hits of sports history. A compilation of the best of the best in archive footage and while the documentary doesn’t quite manage to find its way to a conclusion of any kind, it’s hard not to admire these superstar athletes and their humility in front of the camera. They themselves fail to see what makes them so special, Gretzky speaks in length about how he would probably do very badly in terms of today’s standards.
One of the questions in the centre of Polsky’s documentary is, if success or the potential to succeed can be measured? What impact drive and passion has and if that too is quantitative? Today’s sports industry is largely a numbers game: who is the fastest and strongest, who has the best reaction time etcetera. Polsky suggests that this eliminates the natural element in making someone a successful athlete. All three interviewed athletes tried their hand at a variety of other sports and each admit, they didn’t train hard at a young age like many children do these days aiming to be the next Gretzky or Pelé.
While there’s a lot to be fascinated about in it, the documentary is often hindered by Polsky’s unfocussed style. The interviews are interlaced with archive footage and strange clips that range from Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk to Neo in The Matrix. Rice’s interview includes some baffling camera movements and zooms, making the whole thing feel unpolished and a little amateurish.
Polsky also keeps things going at a fast pace. There are moments of brilliance and honesty, such as Pelé confessing to the camera he doesn’t want to let anyone down and for once, Polsky lets his camera rest on Pelé’s ageing face, driving home the emotion behind the hefty words. It’s a beautiful moment, one that holds such a universal truth that it will reel in even the sports-haters, but moments like these are too far apart as Polsky moves forward at a dizzying pace.
The editing infuses the film with energy early on, the problem is it never slows down. It makes the documentary feel busier than it needs to be and seem like it has more to say than it actually does. While there’s real curiosity found in Polsky’s treatment of those who are undoubtedly his own heroes, he injects himself into the documentary too often, interrupting or asking questions. It makes for a messy narrative and it’s not clear what the point is.
While it’s only the three men who appear in talking head interviews, Polsky also mixes in the stories of various other athletes. Curiously, Serena Williams is the only female athlete deemed good enough to be featured. Although these subjects provide equally, if not more, intriguing stories, they feel a little removed from the main narrative without proper access and thus, become a bit of a slog.
As Gretzky notes at the end that his success was the perfect storm, a mix of sheer luck and good will but a humble man like Gretzky would never admit to his skill and aptitude evident throughout his career. Polsky, on the other hand, never underestimates the talent of his subjects, but questions how far the industry has come in its ways of measuring success and potential. There are some great observations to be found here and this is a documentary which will certainly delight sports fans and perhaps offer something for others too.
In Search of Greatness is available on VOD from May 6.