Directors: Ben Berman and Kirk Johnson
Length: 170 minutes without commercials.
Airs: Part 1 premieres Tuesday, May 30, at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Part 2 premieres Wednesday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Most Similar To: The Last Days of Knight, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
Grade/Ranking: Low 40’s out of 121 30 for 30 Installments, which I’d give a high B or B+ on my 30 for 30 grading curve.
Review: I really liked The American Gladiators Documentary, but not for the reasons I expected. What I thought was going to be a short, breezy nostalgic look back at something I enjoyed from my childhood actually doesn’t spend too much time trying to cash in nostalgia. Nor does the film spend too much time focusing on some of the negative aspects of the show such as steroid usage, insufficient healthcare, and unfair compensation for the Gladiators. So with those topics getting modest amounts of airtime, what fills up the three hours?
The bulk of The American Gladiators Documentary focuses on the murky and not well-known origin of the concept, and the even murkier relationship between the two cofounders. The documentary centers around co-founder John Ferraro, the frontman for Gladiators whose entire life (even now) revolves around the ‘American Gladiators’. We see Ferraro pitching an ‘American Gladiators’ movie to Hollywood, something he says is the one thing that has professionally evaded him (the plot in the screenplay sounds awful, for what it’s worth).
We also learn of ventures like an American Gladiators dinner theater that existed in Orlando for several years after the television show ended. Ferraro, a charismatic character who was once an Elvis Presley impersonator and still hasn’t lost that look, is a compelling character to guide us into the history of the show.
But as the film progresses, hints are dropped that there is much more to this story. Ferraro dodges questions about his cofounder, Dann Carr. His answers are very short and measured when discussing Carr, his role, and current status. As the film dives into the up and downs of ‘American Gladiators’ memorable run, we are given more morsels of intrigue on the mystery of Carr. Phone conversations between Ferraro and the director are played where Ferraro continues to try to steer the production away from pursuing or talking to certain people and looking into certain things that would bring them closer to Carr.
At the end of the first installment we get a great hook for the second part of the documentary when Ferraro refuses to answer questions about why Carr is not in the film and walks off the interview. The film then flashes some text about some things the production has uncovered about Ferraro and Carr’s current relationship and why Carr has been hard to track down. Part II of the film moves the Ferraro and Carr storyline off the back-burner as the documentary pivots a bit towards being more of an investigative documentary. Berman himself becomes a character in the film, as his quest to find Carr and the truth of his history with Gladiators takes front stage.
The American Gladiators Documentary was produced by VICE Studios. If you are familiar with their brand of documentary content you can sense that nostalgia was never the aim of this film. In fact, co-director Ben Berman was quite clear on that in a recent interview in Eerie Time News.
“I didn’t want to do just a straight-up nostalgia documentary. I wanted to look into it and see if there’s an actual story that could be interesting.”
The other co-director, Kirk Johnson, shared the same vision. From the same interview:
“It’s more about a real journey. A life’s journey for Johnny and Danny,” he said. “I see it more as a real story as opposed to information.”
That aspect, as opposed to who was best in events like jousting or tug-of-war, also excited Johnson.
“We wanted a less-campy, Hollywood version of this story,” he said. “We welcomed the twists and turns as we uncovered them.”
Ultimately, the film’s pivot away from the show and characters themselves does pay off. The filmmakers incrementally try various tactics in hopes of finding Carr and figuring where his relationship with Ferraro went south. Pieces of the truth trickle in, and it’s a pretty enjoyable ride to be on as it comes together. I imagine some viewers will have preferred a short one-hour nostalgic documentary in the mold of ‘This Was the XFL’, but I think many will enjoy the investigative journey which goes down a bit smoother—mixed in with modest portions of ‘American Gladiators’ footage and behind the scenes stories.
I really thought Berman and Johnson did well with the film. Three-hour or longer 30 for 30 installments are tough to pull off, but the directors really stuck the landing in centering the film around Ferraro and Carr and the rocky history of their relationship. They threaded a very thin needle in delivering the backstory and nostalgia viewers are tuning in for, but primarily focusing the storytelling on a very basic human story that I think most will engage and connect with. Perhaps some viewers would have preferred the American Gladiators, the contestants, the history of the show and the business around the show, and those crazy games to have been further dissected and explained. However, I think most will agree the mystery the documentary focuses on delivers just enough intrigue and excitement to warrant the diversion from “just a straight-up nostalgia documentary.”