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With ‘Andre the Giant,’ HBO and Bill Simmons try to pin down a larger-than-life subject

Andre the Giant was a colossus of the squared circle. (HBO photo)

Back when he was still at ESPN and helping shepherd the network’s “30 for 30” documentary series to much acclaim, Bill Simmons seemed to take great pleasure in dancing on HBO’s grave as it vainly tried to keep up with Bristol’s ambitious slate and retain its crown as television’s main source of dramatic nonfiction.

“They’ll do what they’ll do. We’re always going to feel like we own this category,” Ross Greenburg, then president of HBO Sports, told USA Today in 2010, when the network was still making documentaries by following a fairly reliable formula: clips, soft-focus interviews, Liev Schreiber narration.

To which Simmons replied on Twitter, mocking HBO’s trend toward stodginess in its documentaries: “Yes, ages 55-90. You still do.”

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HBO shuttered its documentary unit in 2011, a fact Simmons made sure to mention just this year when he told Jim Miller that “we’d basically killed sports documentaries at HBO.” Simmons made this comment after joining forces with HBO, in part to make sports documentaries. It’s all at least a little confusing, with the heel changing allegiances like that, but it sets the stage for Tuesday night’s premiere of “Andre the Giant,” a documentary about a larger-than-life star of pro wrestling, where heels change allegiances all the time.

Simmons, who served as executive producer under his Ringer Films imprint, called “Andre the Giant” his “dream sports documentary project” when it was announced in February 2017, and the film — directed by able “30 for 30” veteran Jason Hehir — certainly is a loving portrayal of a man who was genuinely liked by just about everyone. (Nary a bad word is said about him.) It’s also not a whole lot different from the HBO documentaries that came before it, the ones Simmons mocked. The only thing missing is Schreiber narrating it.

Born Andre Roussimoff in France, the person who eventually gained worldwide renown as Andre the Giant started showing signs of gigantism as a preteen, though photos of Andre as a typical-looking child in the documentary serve as striking reminders that he wasn’t always that way. His condition, which resulted from a disorder in which the pituitary gland secretes too much growth hormone, developed into acromegaly as an adult and shortened his life significantly. The film notes his fatalistic streak: Andre refused to undergo treatment that could have at least slowed the disorder, and he died of a heart attack, alone in a Paris hotel room, in 1993 at 46.

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Billed as a 7-foot-4, 500-pound juggernaut who had never been pinned — both claims were exaggerated, as he was likely shorter and had lost a number of matches far from the American public eye — Andre presented promoters with something of a challenge: How could a person of such stature ever lose a match? The solution, at least during his 1970s prime, was for Andre to pop up briefly in one geographic circuit, take on that area’s bad guys in front of increasingly enthusiastic crowds, then decamp for another part of the world to repeat the process. It led to an increasingly itinerant and uncomfortable life for Andre, especially when the small seats and smaller bathrooms of plane travel were involved.

That plan no longer worked once Vince McMahon, anticipating the rise of cable television and the hours of programming needed to fill it, set out to expand the wrestling circuit started by his father beyond its boundaries in the Northeast, making the WWF (now WWE) the nation’s preeminent wrestling league by the mid-1980s. The documentary leaves Andre for about 15 minutes to suss out the WWF’s rise into the national spotlight, a necessary step but still a lot of time away from the subject in a movie that runs less than 90 minutes.

When the film returns to Andre, his size and failure to treat his disorder have caught up to him, and the wrestler of the 1970s who had surprising agility for a guy his size is now a slow-moving performer who struggled just to get through matches. Nevertheless, he was remade as a bad guy and positioned to challenge Hulk Hogan for the WWF title at WrestleMania III in 1987. This story has been oft-told: Hogan again says he didn’t know whether the proud Andre would allow himself to be body-slammed so Hogan could emerge as the winner, at least until the match was nearing its end. But Andre, in considerable pain from recent back surgery, eventually did relent and allowed Hogan to win. Andre would end Hogan’s reign as champion less than a year later in a cockamamie story line involving evil-twin referees, but his time as a true in-ring presence clearly was over because of his declining health.

Like the wrestling promoters who struggled to find a way to sell Andre, the film’s producers struggle to craft a compelling narrative because of the simple fact that everyone seemed to like him a whole lot, thanks to his gentle nature and willingness to help sell other wrestlers in the ring (so long as they weren’t mouthy like Randy “Macho Man” Savage, whom Andre apparently despised). That, and the fact that so much of his life — the will he/won’t he of WrestleMania III, his mythic appetite and stamina for alcohol, his Hollywood turn in “The Princess Bride” — has been covered before.

This is not to say the documentary isn’t interesting. With photos and video clips that span the entirety of Andre’s life both in and out of the ring, and none of the creative flourishes that marked recent “30 for 30” films such as ESPN’s recent Ric Flair documentary, “Andre the Giant” is a fast-paced, thorough affair. But it’s hardly groundbreaking, with Simmons — via emulation instead of innovation — reviving an HBO format he previously claimed to have killed.

“Andre the Giant” premieres Tuesday, April 10, at 10 p.m. Eastern on HBO.

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