The incredible ratings and unquestionable cultural cachet of the documentary speak not just to the documentary’s reach and the eternal power of nostalgia, but also, of course, to the desperation of sports fans at this particular moment. As we approach the start of our third month without American sports, the documentary arrives when we need it most. It’s no surprise we’re watching these brilliantly packaged Jordan highlights with mouths agape; amateur curling night at this point would fill us with wonder.
Still, the documentary, which runs two episodes every Sunday night through May 17 (I’ve seen the first eight episodes), would be compulsively watchable regardless of the current circumstances. The ESPN co-production with Netflix is directed by veteran Jason Hehir, who at the very least has pulled off an incredible feat of organization and story structure. He carefully walks us through not just Jordan’s final season but the whole Jordan mythos with the skill you’d expect from an ESPN documentary factory that has 10 years of experience honing its narrative skills to perfection. Each episode is over in a flash.
Hehir does have one big problem, though: an extremely unreliable narrator. Jordan has been famously reluctant to sign off on a big project like this — he reportedly only agreed to do this one after LeBron James won a championship for Cleveland and you started to hear more “is LeBron better than MJ?” debates popping up — but now that he has done so, it’s obvious that, as always, he has made sure he is in total control. This is history written solely by Jordan himself. All stories are framed by Jordan’s commentary, and anytime anyone says anything that might upset Jordan, we cut to him growling or rolling his eyes at them.
Every talking head, a grouping that includes countless Hall of Famers and NBA immortals, seems to exist in the world of the documentary solely to boost Jordan’s legend. Jordan’s word is taken as absolute scripture, whether it’s about his infamous gambling problem, some of his more notorious off-court exploits or his long-debated reluctance to speak about any world issue that wasn’t explicitly about basketball.
To Jordan, the entire world is distraction from his reason for living — winning championships and destroying all who stand in his way, and even many who don’t — and Hehir and company never push harder than that. It’s a telling sign that the film spends almost as much time on an (amusing) Jerry Seinfeld visit to the Bulls locker room as it does on Jordan’s refusal to endorse Harvey Gantt over Jesse Helms in the 1990 North Carolina Senate race.
Jordan’s argument that all that matters is basketball speaks to his void as a central character. “The Last Dance” draws obvious comparisons to ESPN’s Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made in America,” but the latter film was of course about so much more than its titular subject; if anything, it was about what O.J. Simpson represented to every side of our divided country, about how our reactions to him and his crimes reflected fun house mirror versions of ourselves. “The Last Dance” is Jordan’s story only, and though Jordan’s otherworldly competitiveness helped him win six championships, it doesn’t exactly make him the most multidimensional protagonist. By the time Jordan is imagining feuds with third-string small forwards just so he can have one more machine to rage against, I’ll confess I stopped particularly enjoying his company. Jordan’s insatiable, ravenous competitive urges made him great, but they also make him an oppressive, exhausting presence to sit with for eight hours.
These are rather obvious faults with the documentary, ones I suspect would come up a lot more if we weren’t otherwise sports-less. But our threshold is a lot lower right now, and with good reason. One of the main points of sports in the first place is to provide us with awe and wonder that our humdrum everyday lives otherwise lack. Awe and wonder have rarely been in shorter supply, and Jordan, for all his faults and lack of self-reflection, more than provides that. “The Last Dance” doesn’t shed any new light on Jordan, and I’m not sure it ever could. It just shows us one of the greatest athletes to ever live, right when we needed to see that exact thing the most. Our jaws remain dropped, and we have perhaps never been more grateful.