What if everything you’ve been told about how to excel in sports is wrong? After picking the brains of some of the most gifted athletes of all time, the documentary “In Search of Greatness” concludes that impressive physical attributes alone don’t necessarily translate to success on the field.
Frames from photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s famous 19th-century studies of human motion open the film by Gabe Polsky (“Red Army”). These images serve as a succinct metaphor for the eternal effort to quantify the material world, but the film’s subjects immediately question whether greatness is something that can be measured at all.
Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, for instance, and NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky both explain that they never possessed great speed. Brazilian soccer legend Pelé recalls that his favorite player, Garrincha, was born with misshapen knees and one leg shorter than the other. Although these and other athletes may have had physical limitations, the film argues, with intelligence and creativity, each one eventually developed an idiosyncratic, unpredictable personal style that allowed them not only to overcome their shortcomings, but also to excel in their sport.
“In Search of Greatness” makes the case that sport, like art, demands innovation. Formulas for success, unfortunately, are often just patterns of conformity. (Here, the film drops the needle on “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd.) Athletes who break records, in other words, are the ones who break the mold. (Cue Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.”)
Gretzky and Pelé offer examples of how they defied a coach or teacher’s instructions. If that sounds like terrible advice for impressionable young minds, education expert Sir Ken Robinson steps in to clarify: Such athletes become exemplars in the arena not out of disrespect for rules, but because “they just think there’s some other way to do this.”
As interesting as such insights into the nature of greatness may be, they do not make for a great documentary. Other than the visually dynamic credit sequence, “In Search of Greatness” consists of the conventional talking heads and archival footage of a typical television profile. In short, the film lacks the very imagination it touts, along with another trait that it links to exceptional athleticism.
What made the recent tennis documentary “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” such a mesmerizing, unconventional film was the way it conveyed a palpable sense of McEnroe’s single-minded drive. Such passion, while evident in its subjects, is absent from the film.
Fans of Rice and Gretzky will be happy to hear from their heroes and to weigh their sage advice. But where’s the emotion? To paraphrase “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” the thing that’s missing from “In Search of Greatness” is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
PG-13. At AMC Loew’s Georgetown 14. Contains brief strong language and some partial nudity. 80 minutes.