In an alternate timeline where COVID-19 isn’t a reality and the sports world proceeds as normal, ESPN would have aired “The Last Dance” during the NBA Finals. The original intention was to fill in the days between games with new episodes, keeping basketball fans satiated through the most intense time of the NBA season.
It was a sound idea in theory, but this would have forced the legend of Michael Jordan to share the stage with the most compelling Finals series in recent years. Every story or snippet of the Bulls great would’ve been overshadowed by a Giannis move, LeBron dunk or Kawhi bucket.
It’s hard to argue any documentary could hold more importance than a championship series, but “The Last Dance” is not any ordinary piece of television. To see and hear Jordan — who is as elusive as he is legendary — for ten hours might be akin to witnessing a shooting star.
The documentary deserved our undivided attention. The coronavirus threw a wrench into its original plans, and clamors to push the air date forward grew with each day that passed without live sports — even LeBron James passive-aggressively pushed ESPN to release it early. The network and filmmakers obliged, and luckily for all basketball fans, “The Last Dance” aired center stage, under the spotlight, with nothing else to distract from its storytelling.
From the first trailer, the documentary geared itself to become a significant cultural moment. The trailer not only featured Jordan in rare candidness, but teased myriad esteemed guests as well; cameo appearances from Barack Obama and Justin Timberlake showed that the Jordan-era influence permeated throughout all elements of American society.
“The Last Dance” lives up to its star-studded billing, but the more fascinating moments of the documentary are usually provided by lesser-known figures. Among them is Jordan’s personal trainer Tim Grover, whose intensity during his interviews was matched only by his stories of Jordan’s insane work ethic. The documentary also introduces us to security guard John Michael Wozniak, whose cartoonish look and jovial personality starkly contrast with Jordan’s no-frills attitude. His version of the “Jordan shrug” made for instant meme material.
And then there is Michael himself, who serves as the main subject and narrator of the documentary. According to director Jason Hehir, the three unedited interviews with Jordan took a total of eight hours. The documentary looks at Jordan’s life and career from multiple angles, touching on his basketball accomplishments, the Jordan brand, his retirements and his father.
Jordan maintains emotional distance throughout most of the documentary, but there are rare glimpses where he lets his guard down and shows genuine interiority. The most poignant moment comes at the end of Episode VII, where he passionately defends his strict leadership style on the verge of tears as the episode cuts out. We also see Jordan at his pettiest, coldly laughing off Gary Payton’s assertion that his defense caused Jordan problems in the 1996 Finals.
These brief humanizing moments — along with masterfully cut montages of basketball action — are the clear highlights of “The Last Dance.” For those who lived through Jordan's peak, the documentary is a great flashback; for those who never experienced it (like yours truly), we witness Jordan’s greatness as presently as possible.
While trafficking in nostalgia makes the documentary a riveting watch, it also puts a ceiling on its storytelling. Narratives and perceptions are often brought up but never broken down; they’re presented matter-of-factly without ever unpacking the factors that created them. The documentary presents to us all the ways Michael Jordan was larger than life, and does so spectacularly, but it fails to ask the deeper questions of “why.”
Perhaps this can be attributed to Jordan’s creative influence over the documentary — Hehir admitted that Jordan had a lot of say in the film’s direction. Stories such as the well-documented feud between Isiah Thomas and Jordan are clearly told in a way that favors the latter’s perspective. Jordan’s own antagonists become the documentary’s antagonists, and former Bulls GM Jerry Krause’s reputation takes the largest hit because of it. In the documentary, Jordan accuses former teammate Horace Grant of leaking clubhouse secrets, and Grant later called him out for lying and “snitching.” In “The Last Dance,” Jordan has his cake and eats it too, and that doesn’t come without some conflict.
Given the scope and magnitude of this documentary, it was naturally compared to another ESPN film, “O.J.: Made in America,” but these two projects are decidedly different. Unlike its Oscar-winning counterpart, “The Last Dance” isn’t much of a character analysis or indictment of American society. Instead, Hehir allows the theatrics to carry the documentary.
After all, Jordan’s cultural mystique is a product of equal parts basketball dominance and a carefully crafted public image, and the 10 episodes maintain both of those features. Sometimes, the best way to appreciate greatness is to simply acknowledge it and not think too hard about it. “The Last Dance” gives us no other choice.