The Last Dance was a huge popular and critical success for Netflix, but it’s only one of many great sports productions on the platform. Liam Maguren picks the best of the best.
Sports are inherently suited for storytelling. There are winners, losers, good guys, bad guys, conflicts, comebacks, climaxes and a fair share of life lessons to be learned along the way. No matter what sport you’re into (if you’re even into sports), these Netflix offerings are well worth cheering for.
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Don’t have time to binge the Emmy-winning series? You’ll find Peter Berg’s original 2004 film does a more than valiant job adapting HG Bissinger’s book about the pressures of a high school football team. Set in a racially-divided and economically-depressed Texan town, the film delivers slow-boiling drama as teenage players face unrealistic expectations from adult locals far too attached to the sport. Anything below perfect is pissed on, and it’s up to coach Gary Caines (Billy Bob Thornton) to shelter these growing young men with a far less toxic idea of ‘perfection’.
You don’t have to be a baseball fan or statistics nerd to be hooked on this unorthodox underdog tale about the manager of the poorest club in the major league who worked with an analytics genius to help choose players and overturn impossible odds. With a saucy script inspired by real events, cast members Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman give even more life to this David V Goliath story—where Goliath is a financially unfair system and the stone is maths.
Proving he could make a more-than-watchable film on an iPhone with 2018’s Unsane, “retired” Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh whipped out the camera app again for this behind-the-court drama. The NBA equivalent of Moneyball, the film stars André Holland as a fast-talking basketball agent in the middle of a pro basketball lockout (not the COVID kind). Trying to expose a legal loophole within the stubbornly systematic league while dealing with a rough rising star (see: talented jackass), High Flying Bird leans heavily on Moonlight writer’s Tarell Alvin McCraney’s punchy script which includes blistering lines like: “Smallest shift in the system? Everything gets fucked-up. Player gets hurt? His life is fucked. Team owner says ‘negros’? His life is… well… annoying, but more effectively, his players get fucked.”
This 19min long Netflix Original doco follows sumo prodigy / human bulldozer Hiyori and her attempts to break open Japan’s beloved sport for women. With few female wrestling role models and even fewer professional opportunities, the “peak” age for a female sumo athlete is far lower than what’s physically capable. The film gives an appropriate amount of insight to the sexism, culture, and tradition that’s kept these athletes down but not out, centred on a phenomenal woman who keeps pushing for a better and more inclusive future for the sport. Ends with a chew-on-your-nails championship match.
Not content on climbing the same staircase that made Rocky an underdog classic, director Clint Eastwood pulled off a dramatic rope-a-dope of masterful storytelling with this Oscar-winning boxing tale. Those who’ve seen it know what we mean. Those who haven’t… well… you’ll find out. Hilary Swank gives a career-best performance as the hopeful fighter looking to make a name for herself, while Morgan Freeman and Eastwood himself deliver expectedly stellar turns as the trainers in her corner.
A Super Size Me knockoff stumbles onto a Citizenfour-like expose and accidentally creates an Oscar-winning doco. That’s the basic summary of Bryan Fogel’s doco, which initially saw him as a self-doping guinea pig attempting to beat a drug test (à la Lance Armstrong). However, his chance encounter with a Russian scientist completely overrides the story, turning the film into a geopolitical thriller that involves a global drug scandal and a very unamused Vladimir Putin.
This is the perfect companion to 2019 Oscar winner Free Solo. While Alex Honnold pulled off the incredible feat of climbing El Capitan with no safety ropes, The Dawn Wall‘s Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson created a climbing route deemed impossible on the 900m wall. It’s a fascinating biopic (Caldwell went through some HEAVY shit as a teenager) and an incredible story of perseverance in the face of the unknown, as well as a surprisingly touching bromance.
Released two years before he won the competition, director Matt Bell’s documentary follows walking brickhouse Eddie Hall’s everyday life as he seeks to become the World’s Strongest Man. While the film works nicely as an introduction to the sport itself, Hall’s refreshingly sincere yet unapologetically crude personality makes him a fascinating man to follow. His shopping bill alone is frightening but that’s just one of the many details that make up his life as a strongman athlete as well as a father and truck mechanic. His rivalry with Game of Thrones‘ Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson is also remarkably hilarious (they’re squaring off in an actual pay per view boxing match September next year).
This superbly entertaining 2018 doco covers the crashing clown car of events that led to the Major League Baseball’s infamous doping scandal. Managing to score interviews with the oily dudes behind the whole debacle, these Tiger King-rivaling personalities fuel a hard-to-believe story that worms through the sludge of the Miami underworld before concluding with the takedown of the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez. And, in an ingeniously creative move, director Billy Corben recreates all the ensuing childish events by casting actual children in the reenactments. Call it Drugsy Malone, if you must.
If you saw the excellent 2014 film with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, then you only know half of the shocking true story it was based on. Released two years after Bennett Miller’s film, Team Foxcatcher covers the rest of the bases with this thorough 90-minute documentary examining the complex enigma that was millionaire John du Pont, the Olympic wrestling team he invested in, and his increasingly bizarre behaviour that eventually led to a tragic—and seemingly senseless—crime. The climactic court case holds no easy answers.
While sports stories typically follow winners of some capacity, this superb 10-episode docuseries dives deep in the minds of athletes who have experienced bitter defeat on a colossal scale. From a golf prodigy who chokes on the world stage to a failed curling squad whose comeback broke the game, this doco collection covers an impressive variety of sports and characters who give enlightening insight on how they handled a downfall far bigger than most of us will ever know.
You truly do need a ten-episode show like this to understand the one-man basketball phenomenon that was Michael Jordan. With a crazy amount of previously unreleased archival footage of the Bulls’ 1997-98 season along with candid explanations from the man himself (while he sips whiskey like a true champion), this ESPN series tells the definitive tale of a real living legend.
Yes, yes, professional wrestling isn’t a real sport (or really real, for that matter) but humour us. With three seasons under its heavyweight belt, this 1980s-set series does the real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling proud by mixing the right level of comedy and drama for a “sport” centred on fake performances and real physicality.
Hosted by Dwayne Johnson, this natural merging of American Gladiators and Sasuke (Ninja Warrior) delivers exactly what you’d expect from painfully addictive competition shows with larger-than-life 1-V-1 face-offs that include tug-of-warring steel girders and ram hammering through castle doors. While there’s certainly a lot of chest-thumping and showboating (it’s American, after all), the competition’s emphasis on highlighting everyday (albeit, beyond buff) people like doctors and construction workers keeps the show grounded and loveable—just like “DJ” himself.