Right now, it's that magic season. We are at the beginning of preseason football — before any meaningful games are played — where anything is possible. Even the most diehard fans could talk themselves into considering the Cleveland Browns (the Browns!) playoff contenders.
Speaking of those Browns, they are the focus of HBO's "Hard Knocks" documentary series this year, of which the first episode premiered earlier this week. That, along with "Last Chance U," is helping scratch my docu-series itch at the moment.
Watching both has me pondering the ideas of expectations versus reality. Part of the job both series have to do, even though they are documentaries based in real life events, is build dramatic tension. Where they have it easier than most is in the setting, as "Hard Knocks" follows an NFL team through the preseason — when there is nothing but (high) expectations — and "Last Chance U" captures the daily grind of community college football, a level that does not get a great amount of national exposure.
Contrast that to movies like "Miracle," "Moneyball" and "Seabiscuit" (just to name a few) and it's an interesting discussion to have, expectation versus reality, when we know what the outcome will be. It seems to create an inherent debate about which is greater, the mythos behind the event/game or the game itself?
While sports is not the only genre of this "based on a true story" concept (with dramas like "Captain Philips" or comedies like "Tag" falling into the same category), it is a unique experience because the fan bases are so passionate — and so well-versed in the mythos.
Then, there is the fact that you will often hear broadcasters say things like, "you can't write this stuff up." And yet, Hollywood does, which begs the aforementioned question.
In some cases, I have heard these stories before. For instance, I read the book "Friday Night Lights" before I saw the movie. Pressed to say which is better, it's a tough call because there are some major differences — particularly in the amount of back story you get in the book, especially in regards to Odessa-Permian's final opponent in the state championship (personally, I would say my favorite version of "Friday Night Lights" is the completely fictionalized TV show).
Most films based on real games, seasons, etc. have to cram a great deal of character development and building action into an extremely condensed time frame — whereas in real life you may see these events play out in three hours, over the course of three months or even longer. There's something to be said for the job the screenwriters do crafting these tightly wound narratives, but it's hard to beat seeing those moments transpire in real life.
While not immortalized on screen, the stories of "The Flu Game," "The Music City Miracle," "Reverse the Curse" and "Mario's Miracle" (a personal favorite) live on, rivaling the drama of some of the greatest sports films created — and that's just to name a few.
I think the reason I enjoy these documentary series is that while they take their time building drama, they are also very much cemented in events that are happening in the now. "Hard Knocks" is filmed and released almost concurrently through the duration of the NFL's preseason. "Last Chance U" is a little different, given that it follows a team over the course of a full season, but you get the same sense of the real stakes on the line for the players.
For "Hard Knocks," there is the looming cut deadline when the training camp roster gets trimmed down to the NFL's official 53-man roster. Some of the players we have come to know and love over a handful of episodes may be sent packing. In a sense, "Last Chance U" is very similar, though you hope the players documented there get to "pack up" and move onto the next level — especially when you learn of the trials and tribulations they have gone through just to get to Independence Community College (the focus of the most recent season).
Also on display in the first episode of this season of "Hard Knocks" was a parallel "tough love" mentality showcased throughout the most recent season of "Last Chance U." When Jarvis Landry got real with the Browns' receivers about practice, I couldn't help but wonder if he had ever had a run in with ICC's coach Jason Brown.
Suffice it to say, while real life has shaped some truly great sports films, nothing compares to the original; the man, the myth, the legend gets the hierarchy just right.
— Kelly Breckunitch is a general assignment/county reporter for The Kansan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.