The Last Dance
2020, ESPN (U.S.), Netflix (International), 10 episodes
Few plaudits better capture what it means to have created true art than for someone who experiences it to state that they hadn’t expected to connect with the work, and yet they had.
The issue is usually one of subject matter. The person who writes the book on Beethoven writes the book for Beethoven people, with little consideration of anyone else. We see art become increasingly exclusionary, audiences increasingly circumscribed. Some of the blame goes to devolving standards, but it’s too easy to blame the public, attributing short attention spans to everyone. The problem with art in our age more often has to do with the would-be creators—an idea reinforced by Jason Hehir’s ten-part basketball documentary series The Last Dance.
In truth, The Last Dance is a basketball series in name only. Technically about the two-pronged dynastic run of the 1990s Chicago Bulls, it’s really about Michael Jordan, pop icon, transcendent athlete, and perhaps an artist in his own right. In how steadfastly it’s about Jordan, The Last Dance paradoxically becomes a work about how we see ourselves, which is the rub of art.
The Last Dance is a film that Jean-Luc Godard—who certainly had no overt interest in athletics—might have written about in his critic days at Cahiers du Cinéma. If you’re a hoop head, said head will nearly explode with the court-based material the documentary dishes out. But it’s also, more broadly, a journey of epic proportions, and such a journey requires a Homeric figure as the constant. The Homeric figure need not be an all-around great person, but they must be a compelling one who changes, for better or worse or possibly for both.
Jordan is the filmic Odysseus of The Last Dance. If you don’t know basketball and perpetually sought a note to get out of playing it in gym class, you nonetheless know Jordan and you know he was pretty darn adroit at the sport. You also know that he was power-mad in his need to impose his will on his fellow players, which is downright Shakespearean. Macbeth and Jordan could have set picks for each other.
Cinematically, The Last Dance follows the format of a serial. When you were a kid in the 1940s, you would turn up at your local movie theater on a Saturday morning for the appointment viewing of the time, as Buck Rogers or Captain Marvel would carry on with an adventure from the week before. A serial accrues in impact, and they can be damn artful—think Louis Feulliade’s Les Vampires, one of the oldest of its kind, about a crime syndicate that ran for ten installments in France from 1915-1916. His Airness Michael Jordan might seem a long way away, as a subject, from a bewitching band of criminals, but both serials show how we could look to someone far removed from our own lives and experiences and connect them to our own.
The Last Dance doesn’t trade in choppy editing, the bludgeoning blight of the quick cut. There are lots of long takes—not Orson Welles at the start of Touch of Evil long takes, but rolling, continuous shots nonetheless. Part of that is because of the basketball footage we see; sports broadcasting, ironically, being a medium that cuts far less often than the average present-day film. Hehir makes uses of this footage to the fullest. The camera doesn’t track a lot—save in over-the-court shots—but it does pan, the same way that Buster Keaton would pan from left to right and back again, letting the game, to use a sports metaphor, come to the filmmaker.
There is a kinetic energy to those sequences. If you saw Jordan play, you know that he was Mr. Kinetic on the court, as difficult to take one’s eyes away from as Jimmy Cagney during his heyday. Regarding Cagney, Orson Welles once remarked that there’s absolutely nothing real about his performances, and yet they are true. That’s a Jordan-esque trait if there ever was one. The man seemed to beat gravity with regularity, hanging in the air as if he had been bequeathed several extra seconds in his day, and could spend them as he pleased. His skills made him unreal, in one sense—the sense of “I don’t believe what I just saw,” to borrow a famous line from announcer Jack Buck—and yet his results are true. The Bulls, in large part because of Jordan, became the most dominant dynasty in North American sports history.
As viewers, we want to isolate the locus of Jordan’s character more than the workings of his game, because as Hehir intuits, we reason that the former in some significant way drives the latter. It’s a natural impulse, to wonder how someone so tireless can function as he does, how he manages to work so hard, as you evaluate what you know about him in comparison to yourself.
Thus, the kinetic energy of the game footage is intercut with interview portions that do something we hardly ever see with interviews—they feature a moving camera, even dolly shots. There’s fluidity, a dearth of cuts. Even the interviews aren’t done in that clichéd medium-shot we always expect. So we have a serial, with long cuts of various forms balancing each other, making the work neither too kinetic nor too oratorical. In fact, the editing plays off of the rhythm of a basketball game—moments when a team works a ball around the perimeter, seeking the open shot, and other instances of isolation ball, when a player like Jordan, or LeBron James, all but barks a directive for teammates to clear the way so he can try and take his man to the hole.
Shoot and cut your film in this fashion—and locate the right balance between subject matter and technique—and people don’t notice the hours. They want more. They cannot wait until other installments are released so they can get their fix, and if you said to them that the film could be 20 hours long, they would take that. So much for short attention spans.
Jordan is the through-line through all ten hours, tracking his progression from wunderkind rookie in 1984 to his rushed exit after the Bulls’ second Threepeat in 1998. But so long as the through-line exists—and perpetually lodges in the mind of the viewer—then it’s possible to do some temporal hopscotching, without the film feeling jumpy. That sets up a lot of freedom with sub-directions within the film. The Last Dance is a collage work, but one that is also continuous, and thus parallels how each of us exist in our own lives.
Fitzgerald famously closed The Great Gatsby with an unnatural, but very human, metaphor—boats trying to tack back against the current. Jordan is doing that in a way, too—for all of his world-beating, he sounds like a man whose life does not belong to the present or the future. You can tell that he despairs that what he has now is not like what he had before. Few of us are much like Michael Jordan, but many of us can relate on this score. We want a return to youth, we want the one who got away, we seek to press the nostalgia button.
But at no point does The Last Dance press the nostalgia button, when it easily could. It feels oiled-up, warm and timely and invested in its own story and getting that narrative across to you, the viewer, through visual means. It’s a film that believes it has a mission, a work of human earnestness that encapsulates a sport it also leaps beyond. Jordan could dunk from the foul line, but this is the artistic dunk from half court.
The best art builds off of its putative subject, it doesn’t capture, define, or merely reveal it. An audience will always exist for work like that, provided that work gets its chance to dance. You won’t bemoan lost hours, because you’ll be too caught up in living your portion of a game for which there is no subbing out. Great cinematic art is like the coach who best understands match-ups. “Stop playing down to the competition,” The Last Dance seems to say. “Rise up to your level.” It’s so much more satisfying.