Sunday, March 11, 2012

Mixed Emotions: The Announcement

The last thing I expected to find myself thinking about while watching The Announcement, ESPN Films’ documentary on NBA superstar Magic Johnson’s 1991 revelation that he was HIV-positive, was Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda – in large part because Melinda and Melinda is hardly worth thinking about – and yet there it was. Allen’s otherwise forgettable 2004 Radha Mitchell vehicle is memorable only because of its unusual premise, which involves a bunch of writers sitting around discussing the outline of a story and debating whether it makes for a better comedy or tragedy. As I watched The Announcement, I realized that a similar debate could be applied to the outline of Magic Johnson’s life – a tale dominated by a tragedy that turned out not to be tragic at all. When Johnson told the world he had HIV, the catastrophe of the moment wasn’t the abridgement of his athletic career but the immanence of his death. Back then, most of us didn’t know much about HIV and AIDS – like, for example, the difference between them – but we knew enough to feel that Johnson couldn’t survive long. The immanence of his death was the one thing that everyone seemed to be on the same page about. Everyone, that is, except for Magic Johnson, who wrapped his press conference by saying, “I’m going to go on and I’m going to beat it, and I’m going to have fun.”

I was 14 when Johnson made that declaration, and even to me Magic’s words seemed less hopeful than sad, symbolic of a man in total denial. In 1991, HIV/AIDS was unbeatable, even for a guy who almost never lost. To pretend otherwise was macho sports-hero fantasy. And yet here we are, more than 20 years later, and Magic is still alive, still healthy and strong, and, yeah, still having fun. That this was so unthinkable in 1991 is a tribute both to our ignorance (even within the medical community) and to the significant advancements in HIV treatment made in the aftermath of Johnson’s diagnosis. But while there’s poetry to be found in Johnson, who won basketball championships in high school, college, the NBA (five times!) and the Olympics, being the first person most of us “knew” to “beat” HIV, the larger reality is that many others with access to the same drug cocktails have been beating HIV too these past 20 years, albeit more anonymously.

Which brings me back to Melinda and Melinda, because in 2012 it’s hard to know how to feel about Johnson’s titular November 7, 1991, announcement. Trapped in time, the emotions of that moment are defined by a then-appropriate sadness that was inspired by a then-appropriate sense of impending doom that, as it turns out, were entirely unnecessary. Put another way: if we knew then what we know now, Johnson’s announcement would still have made headlines, but the moment wouldn’t have seemed so grim. Not for one of the greatest basketball players of all time, who at 32 was already pointed toward the end of his career. Not for a guy who indeed avoided the awful death that we all thought was unavoidable. And so it is that director Nelson George is in a tough predicament: to fail to recognize the feelings of utter despair that surrounded Johnson’s announcement is to revise history, and yet to continue to treat those events as elements of a catastrophe, or to imply that Johnson’s subsequent good health is an against-all-odds triumph, is to remain rooted in that ignorant past.

All of which explains why The Announcement feels so tonally confused: There’s Magic, narrating the movie like it’s a children’s storybook, upbeat as ever (and why not?), referring to himself in the first-person and yet seemingly detached from the events he’s describing, as if they happened to someone else. And there’s Magic’s wife, Cookie, as upbeat as her husband and then some, so full of joy for the present that she half-smiles as she describes the moment when Magic told her he had HIV and the fear she had for him, for herself and for their unborn child growing inside her. And then there are former LA Lakers coach Pat Riley and trainer Gary Vitti, who get choked up remembering the grim days of early November 1991 as if Johnson’s ensuing health and happiness never happened. Tragedy? Triumph? Comedy? Neither the documentary’s talking heads nor George seem to know what kind of story this is, and so George emphatically scores each and every emotion in the hope that something connects.

Although Johnson’s announcement seems ideal for the ESPN Films series – indeed, it was considered to be part of the original “30 for 30” collection – the mixture of these emotions makes for haphazard dramatic thrust. Part of the problem is George’s angle of approach, which takes on Johnson’s full HIV story from his pre-diagnosis womanizing, to the days surrounding his announcement, to his attempts to return to the NBA, to his efforts to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, to his successful post-athletic business career. The Announcement is an impressively comprehensive account, but it's that comprehensiveness that inspires those strange emotional contradictions. A cleaner approach might have been to follow the lead of June 17, 1994 – for my money still the best ESPN Films documentary – and focus exclusively on the days surrounding Magic’s diagnosis and his announcement, making this a film not about Johnson so much as a space in time. As it is, The Announcement is best when it comes closest to that design, capturing society’s overwhelming fear of HIV/AIDS as seen through the awful harassment of infected school-kid Ryan White, the tears of an HIV-positive young girl on a TV special hosted by Johnson and the paranoia of NBA players as evidenced by NBA star Karl Malone, who famously said that he couldn’t play his hardest against someone he knew to be HIV-positive (and who, to his credit, is interviewed in this film).

Ultimately, The Announcement’s most striking moment, the one that best captures just how much has changed over the past two decades, comes just before Johnson delivers his ground-shaking news. It’s a shot of an NBC reporter waiting impatiently for the press conference to start, glancing over his shoulder every few seconds to make sure that he doesn’t miss Johnson’s entrance toward the podium, and then saying into the camera, “We are still waiting, and obviously the anticipation is getting worse and worse. We would like to get an answer sooner or later – quickly, tell us what is going on here. It is a very tense place.” What’s so incredible about that scene is that it draws attention to something that in this era of the Internet, smartphones and social media is now almost impossible: the gathering together of reporters who have no clue what they’re going to be told. Johnson managed to keep his HIV diagnosis secret for three weeks, and just like we can’t imagine that happening now, the health and prosperity that Johnson enjoys today is something we couldn’t possibly conceive back then. In retrospect, the tragedy of the announcement isn’t what we learned. It’s all that we didn’t know.

The Announcement premieres tonight on ESPN at 9 pm ET


jake said...

Very cool write-up, Jason. I worked on a lot of documentary stuff a few years ago and, even on as small of a scale as we were working on, I do remember running into this problem of "how do we present this?" It's tempting to play into all the emotional possibilities of a documentary, even if you're editing it with some knowledge of how things played out after the camera stopped rolling.

On a completely different note, I'd love to hear what you think about "We Need To Talk About Kevin." Saw it on Friday and it's still seeping in.

Thanks for the great writing!

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: The filmmakers were definitely in a tough spot from the start: we all remember the moment as a tragedy, and yet Magic has never -- even then -- acted as if it was. In a way, he was the worst person to provide perspective on "the announcement," as funny as that sounds.

As for We Need to Talk About Kevin ... I'd wanted to write that up months ago. You finally urged me to do it! Thanks!