In lieu of a lengthy introduction, I’m going to simply state that I love documentaries, I have a weird thing with sports that I tried to explain in an article a few weeks ago on The Odyssey, and I’m a sucker for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of sports documentaries. I have seen every one of them, partially because they’re based in a topic I can easily understand and partially because they’re just well-made films for the most part. They are relevant, as the generally cover how sports can be more relevant than just on the field, and they deserve to be critiqued like anything else.
This week’s film, Catholics vs. Convicts, presents a great opportunity to exemplify that relevance. This film covers one particular game played between two undefeated college football teams, the Miami Hurricanes and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, in fall of 1988. This matchup meant more than just a championship. Coming near the end of the eighties, featuring two rivals with more differences than most, and underlined by a controversial t-shirt, this game is deserving of a film.
However – This film hits and misses more than it needs to, and I’m about to lay out where it did both of them.
HIT: Covering both the game and the t-shirt
One of the less-stated aspects of sports is the impact that fans can have on games and the intersection that can occur between the grandstands and the field of play. This is one of those instances, and the titular shirt actually gets a good amount of play in this film. People have made shirts for bigger games, but those didn’t get Wikipedia pages. “Catholics vs. Convicts” did. The story of the shirt itself, sold by a kid on campus making bootleg t-shirts to pay off debts, was important to the context of this game.
MISS: Spending so much time talking about a walk-on basketball player
The student in question gets like one fifth of this film spent on him. Telling the early story of him getting into shirt production and selling those shirts is at least interesting, as it advances the story, gives the shirt a human element, and tells about some of the student experiences around the game. The segment about the two guys speeding from East Lansing to Ann Arbor over the course of one Saturday to catch two football games was a great example of doing all three of those. However, the large chunk of time spent on whether the kid making the shirts got on the basketball team doesn’t do any of those. This film is about the game itself, and I felt like (and I noticed other people feeling like) this got self-indulgent. This leads into another problem
MISS: This film is two hours long and its priorities are in the wrong places
The above problem is exacerbated by the fact that it felt like another extra bit that didn’t add enough thematically to justify its presence on film. There’s not enough here to help us. There are bits about a secondary shirt that didn’t add to the story either. This would’ve been better at an hour and a half, and the rest of these segments would’ve been fine DVD features.
To add to this, the very obvious racial element of the shirt and the matchup is given about a quarter of the time that the less impactful parts were. I felt like the filmmaker tried to distance himself from the racial element of the situation despite knowing more about it now. There’s an unhelpful type of white guilt to this – Knowing something was wrong and skirting the topic itself rather than saying anything of note.
I got this sense from the little amount of time spent on any racial element, and the way that none of the principal figures in making the shirt really state anything. Certain players and a Notre Dame professor does make a connection, but it’s discussed so little. In contrast to the importance that the race of Miami’s players had in the prior 30 for 30 documentaries on the Hurricanes (Billy Corben’s “The U” and “The U Part 2”), race in “Catholics vs. Convicts” was swept under a rug.
Corben voiced his thoughts on the matter on Twitter:
The Miami figures that were chosen were great – Steve Walsh, Leon Searcy, Cleveland Gary, and Jimmy Johnson – all of them were opinionated and seemed to have a great memory of not only the game on the field but everything around them at the time. Hearing so many perspectives on both sides telling their perspectives from 1988 and from 2016 helped that. This is Catholics vs Convicts, and you get a sense of those two sides throughout this film – Johnson and Lou Holtz tell two very different sides of one game. The students behind the shirts tell their perspectives from college and from adulthood. That is thematic, and that works.
MISS: This story has been told before
In this series, there have already been two films on the Miami Hurricanes, the former of which covers this game and the rivalry with Notre Dame (It should be noted that The U spends more time on Miami’s rivalry with Florida State than it does with the Irish).
There’s already a short, which can be viewed for free online, that covers the ’88 Irish team, “Student/Athlete” from director Ken Jeong (it primarily focuses on the story of that team’s walk-on kicker, Reggie Ho, who is referenced in this film).
The aura of Notre Dame is covered well in one segment during last year’s “The Gospel According to Mac” about the Colorado Buffalo team that Notre Dame defeated in a 1989 Bowl Game. The perspective of Notre Dame is well documented, as the story of the privileged often is. I wasn’t clamoring for the Irish’s take on the Irish, because we hear the Irish’s take on the Irish all the time.
This suffers from the same problem as Fritz Mitchell’s “The Ghosts of Ole Miss”. This story is told from the less interesting perspective of the story and doesn’t bear the brunt of what that means, and it follows an auteur whose perspective, while connected, isn’t the most important to the plot at hand.
I recommend this documentary, but understand that this comes from a perspective that probably isn’t going to challenge that of the viewer. Not every documentary needs to do this, but not every documentary is going to be about a topic that begs it. Also, be warned, you’re gonna learn about a walk-on basketball player whether you want to or not.