Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Bitter Reality (TV): June 17, 1994
We are a nation of ambulance chasers and rubberneckers. We are a society drawn to sensationalism. We are America. We take sports too seriously. We take life and death too lightly. All too often, we obsess over scoreboard points while missing the point. We are shameful but unashamed. We know our faults and tend to accept them, even celebrate them. We are Americans. In this context, Brett Morgen’s contribution to ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” documentary series is the embarrassing portrait of America that we shouldn’t need but that we wholly deserve. It’s titled June 17, 1994, after the date of the events it chronicles, but it’s as much a mirror to our present as it is a snapshot of our past. Catch a few minutes here or there and you’ll think Morgen’s film is about a crazy day in sports history in which the New York Rangers celebrated their Stanley Cup victory with a parade, and the Knicks took on the Rockets in the NBA Finals, and the World Cup kicked off in Chicago, and Arnold Palmer played his final round at a U.S. Open and, not to be outdone, O.J. Simpson led police (and transfixed Americans) in a low-speed chase down a Los Angeles freeway. But all of that is just the setting of June 17, 1994; its subject is something else. It’s the story of us.
Morgen’s documentary, which is easily one of the finest of the “30 for 30” series, is a condemnation of America’s confused value system cleverly disguised as a leisurely trip down memory lane. Its greatest strength is its gracefulness, challenging thoughtful viewers without resorting to didacticism or heavy-handedness. Preach? Morgen wouldn’t dream of it. His film is void of traditional narration and talking-head interviews. In their place is a vibrant collage of news footage from that fateful day 16 years ago – stuff that aired, like Tom Brokaw’s bewildered coverage of Simpson’s quasi-escape attempt, and stuff that didn’t, like the multitude of clips showing news personalities chatting with their producers and cameramen, feverously trying to determine what to make of Simpson’s apparent admission-by-flight and how to cover it. In individual snippets, this footage is familiar (the white Ford Bronco cruising down I-5) or unremarkable (a Rangers fan in Manhattan showing off his freshly-inked Stanley Cup tattoo). In sum, however, it’s sobering, clearly exposing the unhealthy significance we place on sports (“Now I can die in peace,” says a 10-or-so kid of the Rangers’ victory) and the flippancy we often exhibit in the face of real-life tragedy, as if it’s a gladiatorial event offered up for our entertainment (the sight of people cheering the Simpson motorcade was disturbing in 1994 and it’s even more disquieting now that we know exactly what Simpson was running from).
Morgen never needs to come right out and call us misguided or otherwise guilty because we implicate ourselves by what we remember and what we don’t. The film’s most inspired touch is its juxtaposition of Simpson’s skedaddle with Palmer’s final competitive U.S. Open round – each event depicting an American icon coming to grips with life-altering circumstances in different ways. Simpson, aware he’ll cease to be a beloved hero, cowardly flees a gruesome reality of his own creation – an apparent suicide note left behind, a gun held to his head – frequently moaning through a phone call with a representative of the LAPD who tries to convince him not to “throw everything away,” as if he hadn’t already; Palmer, aware that his elite-level playing days are far behind him, holds his head high through a potentially humiliating round of 18 holes – golf humbles everyone – and in doing so reveals his dignity and integrity. Palmer’s performance is everything that’s noble about sports, a symbol of the reasons we fall in love with these games and their players. Simpson’s behavior is the bitter alternative, a grim reminder that our heroes are rarely as infallible off the playing field as they are on it. Which of these performances do we remember? Simpson’s, of course. We have a habit of paying more attention to controversy than to classiness, perhaps because in the sporting world we have a habit confusing class and charm.
Part of the allure of the Simpson scandal was due to our belief that he was just like Palmer, that he was a great man and a great sportsman, until all of a sudden he wasn’t. Simpson’s murder trial should have been the last lesson any of us needed that as much as might know these guys on the field or the TV screen, we never come close to truly knowing them. And yet the recent Tiger Woods scandal shows we still have a lot to learn. On a similar note: It turns out that one of the forgotten sports happenings of June 17, 1994, was a home run by Ken Griffey Jr. At the time, Griffey’s longball put him in the company of Babe Ruth as the fastest to 30 home runs in what would be a strike-shortened season. Yet even though Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds demonstrated in subsequent seasons that Ruthian numbers by modern athletes are to be distrusted, when Griffey retired just a few weeks ago several ESPN personalities offered no caveats when suggesting – more like declaring – that Griffey never used performance-enhancing drugs. As if any of us knows that for sure. As if we’ve never been fooled before. Tiger Woods and baseball’s steroids era aren't referenced in Morgen’s film, but in the supportive cheers of those who watched the Simpson freeway chase, convincing themselves that they were watching the actions of an innocent man, we should hear the past screaming at us to face our tendency for self-delusion.
Lest I come off as guiltless or self-righteous in all these observations, full disclosure: I vividly remember June 17, 1994. My high school sweetheart and I were set to celebrate our one-year anniversary with dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Before we headed for the car, we turned on the TV and caught early footage of that white Ford Bronco driving down the freeway. We sat and watched. Our dinner reservation neared. I called the restaurant and pushed it back. We watched some more. The Bronco made it to Simpson’s Brentwood estate. Nothing much happened. We watched anyway. I called the restaurant and cancelled our reservation. We ordered pizza. Signaling the reality TV craze that was about to strike, my girlfriend and I surrendered to the empty spectacle. We weren’t alone. In the weeks and months afterward, writers mocked America’s fascination with Simpson’s low-speed chase, and rightfully so. In the end, nothing happened that was worth watching. (Although, had Simpson shot himself on live TV, don't you figure those same moralizers would have “coincidentally” turned on their TVs at just the right moment? Me too.) Then again, I contend Americans have since spent far more time watching far less compelling television – Real Housewives, anyone? – but I digress. The point is this: For all that I remembered about June 17, 1994, I’m blown away by all that I forgot and I’m saddened by all that I initially ignored. Morgen’s propulsive documentary is a fusion of history, social commentary and poetic cinematic storytelling. It’s a triumph. And for me, as a sports fan, TV entertainment consumer and human being, it’s also a reality check.
June 17, 1994 premieres tonight on ESPN at 10 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.