Nash (Hamilton and Ogilvie, 2013)

NAsh on skateboard

Steve Nash is by all accounts a well grounded, interesting, engaging fellow with whom any intelligent and articulate person could pass an hour and have great memories of a stimulating conversation.

But the difference between seventy-eight minutes of engaged conversation and seventy-eight minutes of snatches of conversations strung together is nowhere more clear than in Nash (★★½), the documentary that covers the basketball star’s life from high school right up to the present day.

Nobody interviewed in the film has a bad word to say about Nash, and neither do I. Yao Ming mentions how Steve took the initiative to organize a charity game in China. Agents, family, and friends talk about how he eschewed celebrity. Teammates from all stages of his career praise his work ethic and dedication to improving his game. I was particularly gratified to be reminded that he spoke out against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That was a position for which he received a lot of criticism and which time has perhaps made look wiser in retrospect.

Although I have nothing but praise and admiration for the documentary’s subject, I did have some concerns about the film itself. The most obvious was the lack of a clear organizational structure. As the film opens we are told that Steve is “thirty-five years-old” and “starting his fourteenth NBA season.” By my calculation that puts us at the beginning of the 2009 season. Nash was still playing with the Phoenix Suns, so beginning there and then flashing back to his high school years suggests the film may have originally been conceived as a chronicle of the 2009 season.

It is at times hard to gauge what is new material and what is stock footage culled from other reports. This at times leads to the feeling that there is not enough material for a feature length documentary–that perhaps a television segment has been stretched. To cite one example, the film doesn’t mention Nash’s marriage until late in the film where he explains why he moved to New York. We then get a graphic informing us of the name of Nash’s wife and three children and that they divorced in 2011. The star affirms his intention to minimize the impact of his divorce on their children and then its back to basketball and the quest for his first NBA championship.

The film’s late introduction and quick glossing over of potentially negative material reminded me of the way Being Elmo similarly elided more probing questions in favor of favorable testimonials and celebratory encomiums. While I absolutely do not want to imply that Nash is a whitewash job, I do think such structures demonstrate a lack of confidence in the audience to be able to process complexity, whether it be social, psychological, or political. In that sense, the film underutilizes its key asset, which is Nash himself. The film actually affords Kobe Bryant more time to explain why (finally) beating the Suns was more important to him (and rehashing the famous Game Five tip-in from Ron Artest) than it gives to Nash to articulate how badly the loss hurt.

Another puzzling hint that perhaps the film mutated from what it was originally intended to be comes in the clumsy frame that begins and ends the documentary. Nash summarizes the myth of Sisyphus at the film’s open, and though we all know the story, we’re happy to hear it again because we’re pleased to be hearing from a celebrity who actually, you know, reads. At the conclusion of his retelling, the basketball star hesitantly suggests that the take-home lesson of the story is “don’t mess with Zeus.”

That’s a deliciously revealing comment, and as the film kept circling back to an animation of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill, I kept waiting for it to deal with the darker implications of Nash’s identification with the tortured soul. Then, suddenly at the end, we hear Nash giving a more positive spin on the myth. Each time Sisyphus pushes the rock he gets “a little stronger” until “eventually, after an eternity, he succeeds.” There is a slight pause and then Nash continues, “So yeah, I imagine him to be happy.” As the credits rolled, I scratched my head. Was this one interview split in two for the film? (In which case, one wonders how well did he understand the myth to begin with?) Was it a change, meaning to signal his resignation that he would never win that elusive championship? Was it a quixotic faith that he would succeed based on the assumption that everyone eventually does? (In which case the movie ends right when it is getting the most interesting.) Was it meant to suggest that there is more intrinsic pleasure in the work than in the achievement? It didn’t particularly bother me that Nash’s interpretation of the myth was opaque, but it did bother me that the directors seemed perpetually reluctant to ask the seemingly obvious follow up questions.

Even with all those objections, the documentary is still consistently watchable. Whether Nash is shooting baskets at the White House with President Obama or responding to criticisms that he partied too much with teammate Dirk Nowitzki before an All-Star game, his answers always seem thoughtful, never canned. One gets the sense that below the mellow demeanor is a driven, introspective, principled person. I just wish that we got more than passing glimpses at that Steve Nash.

Nash is currently available to watch on Itunes and will be available on Video on Demand Friday, December 5.

 

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