thu 09/02/2023

In Search of Greatness review - Gabe Polsky's absorbing sports documentary | reviews, news & interviews

In Search of Greatness review - Gabe Polsky's absorbing sports documentary

In Search of Greatness review - Gabe Polsky's absorbing sports documentary

Icons including Pelé impart their wisdom

American footballer Jerry Rice says he wasn't the fastest or strongest on the team but had a desire to win

Ask any great sportsman or woman about greatness and they'll tell you it's as much achieved as made; natal talent isn't worth much if you don't practise, or are unfit, or don't have a hunger to win.

But much of modern sport has become obsessed with statistics, performance levels and the crunching of numbers – many with dollar or pound signs in front.

Gabe Polsky's film suggests that that approach is taking all the joy and individuality out of sport, and not just at the professional level because it has filtered down to schools. Polsky (who made Red Army) is helped to make his case by three retired all-time greats – three-time World Cup-winning footballer Pelé, ice-hockey icon Wayne Gretzky and gridiron star Jerry Rice.

They all recount how they just loved playing their sport, and would happily spend hours not practising, but playing – an important difference. Gretzky and Rice point out that in today's stats-obsessed professional sport, they would possibly not even make the grade as youngsters as they were never the fastest or the strongest on the team. Pelé, meanwhile, reveals that the player he most admired, his Brazil team-mate Garrincha, had knees so deformed that technically he was disabled – but he was an artist dribbling the ball.

Mention is made of other greats – including Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams (the only sportswoman in the film) and Rocky Marciano, of whom we see archive footage – but mostly this rather slow-moving documentary is just the three sportsmen and two other talking heads, sports journalist David Epstein and educationalist Sir Ken Robinson (a TED talk favourite), imparting some wisdom.

Robinson's contributions in particular are terrific, as he digs into the science of sport psychology, and explains, using pop music as an analogy, how Dick Fosbury (of the Fosbury flop) and tennis player John McEnroe caused paradigm shifts in their sports. And while Gretzky says the best coach he ever had was his dad as they played in their back yard for fun, Robinson makes the important point that the best way of learning something is implicitly – as we do language – rather than explicitly being taught.

Pelé, Gretzky and Rice shared a passion for their sports, which they all took up because they wanted to, not because they were pushed into it by parents or coaches; NFL star Rice was even a late starter because his mother thought American football was too violent. One anecdote he tells speaks volumes about the one quality that all sporting greats share: an obsession with their sport. Rice recounts how each night in bed he would, in the dark, toss a football from one hand to the other – which made catching a football second nature on the field.

Polsky's film isn't, unlike its sporting subjects in their heyday, fast-moving or exciting, but what it lacks in pace it more than makes up for in absorbing content.

They all recount how they would happily spend hours not practising, but playing


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters