Michigan Basketball: ESPN Succeeds With 'The Fab Five' Documentary

Jacob StutsmanCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2011

Of all the great documentaries that have ever been committed to film, one of the most unfortunate omissions, whether it is by accident or by choice, is the lack of any truly memorable sports docs that can rival such films as Man on Wire, The Fog of War and Hearts of Darkness in terms of sheer artfulness and poignancy.

The only counterexample I can think of is Hoop Dreams, which is actually social commentary masquerading as a sports film.

ESPN was the most and least likely company to remedy this oversight. In their favor was the fact that they are one of the few sports media companies that has the vision and reach to produce successful documentaries, and their image needed some rehabilitation after the deportation of Mark Shapiro, whose sole idea of entertainment is a dystopian landscape of hollow pop culture references and glib, empty buzzwords.

The 30 for 30 series began life as an ode to ESPN's endless proclivity for self-aggrandizement. Like an exuberant spouse, their irrational compulsion to celebrate each significant anniversary borders on the ritualistic; it is endemic even in the name.

However, 30 for 30 has morphed into an essential companion piece of sports history. Its effects should be as powerful as any copy of Sports Illustrated, except more reflective and less reactionary in nature.

Many of the entries in the series, with the exception of Press Pause and a few others, deserve every bit of the fawning praise that has been ravished upon them (one notable critique is that it has yet to enlist great documentary filmmakers such as James Toback, who directed the endlessly fascinating Tyson, and Errol Morris).

It seemed like only a matter of time before ESPN documented the rich legacy inherent in U of M sports, but for all of the school's football success, it is the basketball team that provides the material that is the most lasting and impactful.

The Fab Five, directed by Jason Hehir, evokes both the thrill of greatness and the disappointment of unrealized potential, and just like the other 30 for 30 film, The U, the way in which the team was emblematic of a vast cultural shift lends itself to endless dissection and commentary.

After all, a good documentary is one that invites its viewers to reevaluate past events based upon contemporary needs. And without descending into complete hagiography, the proximity to the events 20 years ago has done little to diminish the importance of creating a documentary to shed light upon the ongoing impact of the team today.

There are three main factors in the success of a documentary: editing, access and the director's capacity to sense the potential of the subject matter. The Fab Five gets most of this right, and when it doesn't it still manages to be interesting. The factor that contributes most to the success of the film is the willingness of the players to talk openly about their time at Michigan.

The film has the qualities of a confessional, and yet it does not answer all the questions. The truth often remains tantalizingly elusive. The players, also, show a remarkable capacity for self-reflection that certainly undercuts the shallowness of the image that many people had conceived of them.

Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson all commit their words to film, but Jalen Rose, who also produced the documentary, internalizes much of the greatness and the contradictions of the Fab Five. It is through him that the documentary gains much of its authority and power. The absence of Chris Webber, who declined to appear in the film, has been cited as a major problem of the documentary.

On the contrary, I think that some of the scenes resonate in his absence (probably not through any particular design), and in a strange way it is even more intimate; his absence pervades every frame of the film. Whereas the other players have come to accept the legacy of the Fab Five, Webber's emotions are not allowed to be diminished by time.

The rawness of his experiences still exist untarnished in the footage: in a way it is symbolic of a man who has failed to address the past. It is useful to point out that any explanation he could have provided might have been all too ordinary to clarify and add to the impact of the timeout incident, which is perhaps even more startling without his commentary.

I expected a conventional approach to an event that still resonates in the minds of many Michigan fans, but to me it was the most moving part of the film.

The one great lapse in The Fab Five is its expansiveness. At once a drama, social commentary, sports film, and not-so-subtle critique of NCAA policy, The Fab Five must condense many different genres and subject matter into 90 minutes of film. Once it begins to address the Ed Martin scandal, the film loses some of the emotional force that it had built up from the beginning.

But the image of the team's banners, sitting between two dusty boxes in an unremarkable building, bookends the documentary effectively. One can hope that it is only a matter of time before they fly from the rafters of Crisler Arena once again.