If you’ve seen only a few documentaries in your life, odds are one of them was by Ken Burns. One of the best and most prolific documentarians of his time, Burns documentary series include The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts (2014), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019) - just to name a few.
In the documentary world, Burns is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and that’s why his reflection on “The Last Dance” caused so many waves. A lot of people announced “The Last Dance” as probably one of the best, if not the best, sports doc ever. The main reason for it is the fact the filmmakers got the most valuable thing for a documentary - access. Cameras went behind the curtain for an entire year. That implies unfiltered, raw footage that will show us the truth. And therein lies the rub. This documentary was made with Jordan’s approval, in coproduction with MJ’s company Jump 23.
“I find it the opposite direction of where we need to be going. If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period.”
Ken Burns, via THR
Conflict of interest, lack of objectivity - call it what you want, but we can’t rely on “The Last Dance” to be a reliable record of history if the main subject of the series is also producing the series. In the same way, there’s a difference between a biography and autobiography. All indications are that episodes that are about to come will show a lot of what Jordan’s been criticized through the years, so not everything’s been cut out. But overall, we are still getting to see only what Jordan allowed us to see.
We’ve already seen how MJ’s participation in the doc misrepresented certain people and events. Jerry Krause was presented as Thanos in the first two episodes, while owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Jordan himself were not pressured to accept the responsibility that comes with the power they had as the team owner and superstar. Not to mention most of MJ’s team-building suggestions were terrible, and Krause did an outstanding GM job.
Isiah Thomas and the Pistons were, again, criticized for walking off the court, and MJ was presented as a respectful athlete who cherishes sportsmanship. The doc failed to mention that Jordan said this between games 3 and 4 in Detroit.
“The Pistons are undeserving champions. The Bad Boys are bad for basketball.”
Michael Jordan, via Yahoo Sports
MJ claims his sportsmanship by saying he shook their hands after losing in previous years, but now they were “undeserving champions” and “bad for basketball”? What’s the difference between not shaking hands and belittling the achievements of back-to-back champions with words? According to ESPN (and Nike), one is disrespectful; the other is a God-like competitive drive.
“And that’s not the way you do good journalism, ... and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, [which is] my business.”
Ken Burns, via THR
Burns makes a valid point. “The Last Dance” isn’t a documentary; it’s an autobiography. Still exciting to watch, entertaining as hell, and we can’t wait to see all of it. Just don’t make the mistake of interpreting is as objective truth.