Not long after ESPN scored its first ever Academy Award for Ezra Edelman’s nonpareil OJ: Made in America, a masterclass in longform investigative journalism that drew comparisons to Mailer and Caro, the network announced another multi-part documentary series centering on an American sports icon. The Last Dance, a 10-part film jointly produced with Netflix, promised an unvarnished deep dive into one of the most transformative stars and feted dynasties in the history of sports: Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls.
The anticipation only mounted with the release of a glossy extended trailer at Christmas that teased never-before-seen footage and a star-studded roster of interviewees – Barack Obama! Justin Timberlake! – along with the participation of Jordan himself, who has spoken only sparingly about the Bulls’ imperious reign and dumbfounding break-up in the two decades since his playing days. Initially slated for a June release alongside this year’s NBA finals, ESPN swiftly moved up the premiere date to April after the coronavirus pandemic went scorched earth on its spring programming schedule.
As entertainment, it has delivered in almost every imaginable way. Buoyed by the narcotic allure of nostalgia, the slick blend of archival footage, present-day interviews and spare-no-expense soundtrack breathes fresh life into even the most familiar plot points of Jordan’s trajectory from precocious amateur to larger-than-life symbol both overexposed and mysterious. It is one of the few American sports yarns worthy of such a sprawling canvas and the episodes have become appointment television on Sunday nights throughout the past month, averaging a massive-for-today six million viewers over the first six installments ahead of their next-day release internationally on Netflix. Turns out even the opening notes of Sirius by the Alan Parsons Project, the instrumental backdrop for the Bulls’ player introductions and perhaps the closest US analogue to the All Blacks’ haka for spine-tingling pregame pageantry, are still enough to elicit chills after all these years.
But as journalism, regrettably, The Last Dance borders on malpractice. What ESPN has declined to mention during its breathless promotional blitz is that Jordan’s own production company, Jump 23, is among the co-producers behind the project – a fact you wouldn’t know from the closing credits, from which it has been notably omitted. Among the few to seize on this detail amid the film’s deliriously enthusiastic public reception has been the venerable American documentarian Ken Burns, who described the arrangement as “the opposite direction of where we need to be going” to the Wall Street Journal this week. “If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” Burns said. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”
ESPN’s failure to disclose what amounts to Jordan’s retaining final cut of its film might not stand out as an ethical sticking point had it been put forth as a point-of-view piece in the spirit of, say, 2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, which leaves it to the viewer to parse the truth from Robert Evans’ unreliable narrator. But The Last Dance has instead been presented as a definitive account, even as it is compromised by the defects and biases inherent in any authorized biography, with little regard for those cast as villains (even if they’re not alive to give their side).
Of course, concessions were necessary for the project to even get off the ground. The more than 500 hours of behind-the-scenes footage from Jordan’s titular final season with the Bulls, which comprises the narrative spine of The Last Dance, has only seen the light of day because of a pact between the star and the NBA’s in-house entertainment division: that any of it could only be used with his explicit consent. As commissioner Adam Silver recalled to (who else?) ESPN: “Our agreement will be that neither one of us can use this footage without the other’s permission.”
After many refusals to many pitches over many years, Jordan finally agreed to a proposal in 2016. (That he reportedly gave the go-ahead literally days after LeBron James’ famous NBA finals comeback win over the Golden State Warriors, which reignited the pan-cultural Jordan v LeBron debate in earnest, may have proven serendipitous timing.)
The choice between the thinly veiled hagiography of The Last Dance and no film at all is an easy one. Jordan’s near-psychopathic competitive streak, a sort of Daniel Plainview in high tops, has been exhaustively documented, but watching a 57-year-old man reflect on that image and weigh in on decades-old scores is undeniably compelling theater. Still, allowing the subject to have final review and editorial control all but ensures the most ambitious promises of The Last Dance can never be fulfilled.
What’s been billed as a warts-and-all chronicle doesn’t quite gloss over the less pleasant elements of Jordan’s legacy, long the fodder of whisper networks and urban legend, but he addresses them entirely on his terms. Story arcs on his compulsive habits and tyrannical proclivities with teammates can appear problematic at the outset, but come off looking forgivable in the end. For the first time Jordan opens up about his infamous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” apoliticism – a trait which has not aged especially well amid the post-Kaepernick resurgence of athlete activism – yet the filmmakers apparently didn’t think it was worth speaking with Craig Hodges, a key contributor on the first two of Jordan’s six championship teams who has been among his most vocal critics on the subject – a conspicuous omission given the more than 100 people in Jordan’s orbit that were interviewed. We are left with the unshakeable sensation that we’re not getting the straight dope, rather seeing Jordan as he wants to be seen.
This is less than an indictment of the filmmakers and more a commentary of our media climate. As much as we’d love to see this material in the hands of a Pennebaker or Burns or Asif Kapadia, that’s simply a non-starter in an age where the titans of sports and entertainment can bypass traditional channels to control the narrative through their own production companies or friendly platforms like the Players’ Tribune, a trend which Jordan, it must be said, was decades ahead of the curve on. And ESPN, a rightsholder which pays billions of dollars annually to broadcast NBA games, is hardly the lone culprit in the blurring of journalism and entertainment: Look no further than the Verheoven-flecked pantomime on offer at Fox News or Jeff Zucker’s cringeworthy handiwork at CNN, where the promos for presidential debates, once beamed into America’s living rooms as a public service, wouldn’t feel out of place on Monday Night Raw.
Which is all to say The Last Dance might feel like a missed opportunity if there was even an opportunity to miss. It may not be the prestige journalism that ESPN would be happy for it to be mistaken for, but in the newly arrived genre of longform branded content you could do a whole lot worse.