Hollow Reflections: Our Review of ‘In Search of Greatness’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - November 07, 2018
Hollow Reflections: Our Review of ‘In Search of Greatness’

Soccer legend Pele says that he’s not best soccer player he knows and it’s actually Garrincha. Despite having an asymmetrical bone structure, the latter player managed to dribble his way into World Cup victories. Gabe Polsky, who directed sports documentaries like Red Army, uses him as a subject in In Search of Greatness. His new documentary shows the contradictions within that quality.

After the Garrincha example, the other talking heads riff out other ones like Rocky Marciano. Again, despite having a lighter and shorter everything, he became one of the world’s greatest heavyweights. Wayne Gretzky himself talked about how he wasn’t as strong and big as the older hockey players. Players he had to play with in all stages of his long and fruitful career.

There’s a lot of Gretzy in this movie but his recollections fit in with its message. That being better being a part of a better team as a child doesn’t reflect professional greatness as an adult. That’s interesting to say coming from someone whose stats as a ten year old is on record. But he became himself not because of rigid training methods.

Rounding out Pele and Gretzky is football player Jerry Rice. He has his own physical flaws to surmount to become a great. Polsky eventually fishes out something from Rice about how adults want to control potential athletes. And how he, like Gretzky, wouldn’t have made the cut in the combines even at their physical peaks. But they became greats regardless.

These talking heads come off as intelligent, subverting the idea of the dumb jock. They wouldn’t be greats if they didn’t know what they were doing. And their recollections are equally tolerable. There are moments that can be distracting though, as Polsky illogically zooms in and out of them, making me wonder if his subjects are in front of green screens.

Nonetheless, the film is a fascinating look on Pele, Gretzky, and Rice and how society molded them into the way they are. It’s also about how adults today want to find the next ‘great’ something in every child. There’s even one scene presenting a clip from Steve Harvey show. There, he and his audience have good intentions on cheering for a kid sized American gladiator.

Harvey and the crowd cheer the kid on, supporting him. But there’s a mocking tone here. It points to the ridiculous notion of the normal kid going through a kid version of those gladiator’s obstacle courses. It points to how some parents take that encouragement seriously. They put playtime in such an embarrassing public arena that reflects the expectations they have.

These are great messages and all. And all of this encouragement of future athletes only exist for them to entertain us. Polsky is right about helicopter parents and sports camps. And even traces of how corporate sports are reminiscent of earlier times. Sports today are like the gladiatorial fights of ancient Rome, exploiting and fetishizing the perfect human specimen. But I’ve heard these complaints before.

Polsky also incorporates other talking points like the justifiable frustration that some greats experience. Serena Williams and John McEnroe have the occasional bouts of anger on the arena. He tries to connect those moments with control and freedom. These are opposing forces that great athletes need to succeed but that feels tenuous at best.

There’s also something esoteric about how Polsky presents these ideas. There’s a lot of talk about combines and how the way one one athlete moves shocked the world of one sport. Sure, I appreciate sports’ nerdy side but there’s a lack of awareness here. Some people watching this doc aren’t into sports. I would have liked to see something more open and less alienating.


  • Release Date: 11/9/2018
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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