Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Lessons in Introspection: Run, Ricky, Run
Back in 1999, the New Orleans Saints made one of the most aggressive trades in the history of the NFL Draft for the purposes of acquiring running back Ricky Williams. Williams was leaving the University of Texas as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, and in him the Saints were getting an athlete who was determined, elusive and tough to tackle. In short, they were getting someone special, an athlete capable of doing the unusual routinely. The Saints drafted Williams to be their franchise player, but three years later Williams was no longer in a Saints uniform, and two years after that Williams wasn’t in any uniform at all. The blockbuster trade and, seemingly, Williams’ professional career had flopped. And yet the problem wasn’t that the Saints’ original scouting report was incorrect but that it was all too accurate. As it turned out, Williams really was determined, elusive and tough to tackle. He really was someone special, an athlete who did the unusual routinely. Trouble was, Williams met that description off the field as much as on it. Before too long it became clear that Williams was less interested in taking on uniformed opponents than in taking on himself.
Run, Ricky, Run is a documentary about this often inscrutable athlete who was first made famous by running within football and then made infamous by running away from it. The film is directed by Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni, and it includes intimate, exclusive footage of Williams dating back to 2004, shortly after his (initial) departure from the NFL, the announcement of which came without warning just a few weeks before Williams was set to open training camp with the Miami Dolphins. Pamphilon’s rare access to Williams was thanks both to a friendship that was formed when Williams was still in college and to a request by Williams to seek the truth. (“Ninety-nine percent of the truth is a lie,” Williams had told Pamphilon.) And so Pamphilon started shooting, without any way of predicting all of what was to come. Like documentaries ranging from Woodstock (1970) to Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Run, Ricky, Run is defined in part by our awareness that the story had yet to be fully defined when shooting began. It’s organic. The historian’s retroactive approach is sometimes the only option available to a documentary filmmaker, but it’s inherently problematic – memories are flawed, and at some point legend tends to suffocate truth. Run, Ricky, Run is the all-too-rare documentary that unfolds mostly in the present tense, which is the only reasonable way to try to climb into the mind of a man who often seemed overcome by the moment.
The documentary has an effect similar to Michael Apted’s unparalleled Up series, albeit on a considerably smaller scale: Run, Ricky, Run charts Williams’ evolution through multiple present-tense examinations spaced out over time – a simple documentary formula in principle that is nonetheless exotic because of the breadth of footage that must be acquired to pull it off. Pamphilon didn’t start examining Williams’ life on camera until after Williams had fathered a third child by a third mother, until after he had admitted to suffering from social anxiety disorder, until after he failed a test for marijuana and fled the NFL to sleep in a tent during a soul-searching trek in Australia and until after sports media personalities lined up to psychoanalyze Williams in speculative 90-second rants. But the breadth of content is here just the same, thanks to interviews with Williams and those close to him that Pamphilon conducted from 2004-2009, during which time Williams spurned the NFL, returned to the NFL, violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy (again), enlisted in the Canadian Football League, schooled himself in holistic medicine, dedicated himself to yoga while accepting a spiritual leader, tested positive for marijuana (again) and revived his NFL career (again). It’s a narrative with more twists than a ratings-starved reality show, albeit without the bitter taste of shameful exploitation.
Throughout the film, Williams makes for a remarkably fascinating subject. He has an indescribable ability to be both forthright and elusive. He’s a deep thinker who sometimes seems to be without thought. He’s a man who comes off as alternately inspired and insane. Miami Herald columnist Dan LeBatard sums it up best when he reacts to Williams’ initial flight from football by saying, “I still don’t know as I sit here talking to you whether this is a product of him being bipolar or mentally ill, or it’s a product of him being the only sane person out there and the rest of us worshipping all the wrong things.” To watch Run, Ricky, Run is to get the sense that all the above might be true. Indeed, Williams might be suffering from one or a few medical disorders that by now might have woven together to the point of being indistinguishable from one another. Bipolar? Depression? Social anxiety? Addiction? Maybe. But you don’t need to make Williams into a sympathetic victim in order to recognize the viciousness of the societal monster around him. Through a montage of sports-media talking-heads performing various levels of character assassination on Williams, Pamphilon makes it crystal clear that the audience at the arena that Williams was so vilified for leaving didn’t give two shits about him. The money and fame that are so often considered the outlandish spoils of professional sports turn out also to be shackles meant to keep athletes in their place until we’re done watching them suffer for our own enjoyment. In this light, the moral outrage over Williams’ marijuana use was a sham. Underneath it all people weren’t outraged that Williams might prefer pot to professional football. People were outraged that anyone might prefer anything to wealth and stardom.
If you doubt that last analysis, pay attention to the segment of Williams’ 60 Minutes interview from 2004 that appears in this film. Sitting opposite Mike Wallace, Williams asks a very simple question: “When would it have been okay for me to stop playing football? When my knees went out? When my shoulders went out? When I had too many concussions? … I don’t understand. When is it okay to not play football anymore?” If the answer to that last question is anything other than, “It’s always okay to not play football anymore,” doesn’t that say something troubling about our society? And yet, if the answer is that simple, how do we explain the outrage heaped upon Ricky Williams – an outrage that might have remained to this day had he not “turned his life around,” as we like to say, by, in part, returning to the very place we always demanded that he exist: the football field? Run, Ricky, Run isn’t so didactic as to ask these questions, but it is dynamic enough to inspire them. It’s the most surprisingly thought-provoking entry in ESPN Film’s “30 for 30” series thus far.
Run, Ricky, Run premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.