Judge Bill Gibron once played air guitar for The Ramones.
Kind of a kinder, gentler Jackass, with purpose.
Journalism had never seen anyone quite like George Plimpton. In an era when the Fourth Estate was becoming instrumental in driving the national social conversation, he was more stuntman than statement maker. In fact, he wasn't much of a reporter at all. Instead, he was what we would probably now call an "entertainment correspondent," the kind of personality that found himself involved in such outside the norm experiences as quarterbacking the Detroit Lions, playing goalie for the Boston Bruins, and participating in a trapeze act for the Clyde Beatty Circus. In the days before the Internet, social media, cable television and 24 hour a day infotainment, he was the original everyman daredevil, like Evil Knievel without all the motorcycle accidents and hospital stays. Today, anyone can pay big bucks to train alongside athletes, play music alongside rock legends, and participate in making movies as part of the whole fantasy camp experience. Plimpton was his own fantasy camp, with his writing on the subjects many weekend warriors first chance at seeing their favorite leisure pastime from the inside.
The documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself does an excellent job of skimming the surface of the man's amazing career (he died in 2003 at age 76). We get his birth and privileged upbringing (his father was a famous lawyer and part of the Kennedy Administration, his mother was a renowned member of the Ames family). We learn of his boarding school education and time at Harvard, his career in the military and his introduction into writing via The Paris Review. It was at Sports Illustrated where he first tried his hand at "immersive journalism," and over the course of the next two decades, his various feats forming the basis of his legacy. He also acted, was a very good friend of Robert Kennedy, and even married his first wife Freddy Medora Espy at the famed family's insistence (they couldn't have an unmarried couple living in sin on the campaign trail). Perhaps the most compelling moment in the film comes at the beginning, when we learn that Plimpton was present on the night of RFK's assassination and helped apprehend and detain Sirhan Sirhan for the Secret Service.
The rest of the movie is made up of talking head, friends and coworkers who wonder at Plimpton's spirit and self-mocking career. We learn of his attempts to play on the PGA tour, the time he went a few rounds with boxer Archie Moore, and his love of fireworks. We don't get a lot of personal insights, though ex-wife Espy is on hand to add a bit of backstage gossip. In general, Plimpton's kids love and admire him, colleagues continue to sing his eccentric praises, and directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling barely breach the surface of this social significance. Today, we live in a world of instant adulation and viral fame. Plimpton's career arc was much more slow and evolving. There is a wealth of never before seen photos and film clips, opportunities for those of us who lived through his escapades to learn more about the man. Of course, what any of this will mean to the Plimpton newcomer remains to be seen. Back in the day, he was a mischief making maverick who wanted to try (and then report about) everything. Today, such insularity is just a blog post away.
Presented on DVD by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, Plimpton!'s tech specs are solid, considering the amount of archival footage and old TV material incorporated. The widescreen image does a nice job of giving the doc a cinematic feel while the Dolby Digital Stereo mix modulates the various voices and ambient noises excellently. There are no bonus features here, which is a shame. Someone like Plimpton may seem like a clear common knowledge cultural figure, but one imagines the newer generations needing some additional perspective. Added content could do this, but the DVD distributor has clearly chosen against such supplements. As a result, Plimpton! becomes something akin to a mere memento, a chance to own a bare bones version of a beloved PBS broadcast (it did play theatrically before heading over to American Masters).
Because of the stifling self-importance sports exists in today, someone like George Plimpton couldn't exist. Besides, why let a "writer" do something for free when you can charge puffy MBAs $1500 a shot to "experience" as part of an NBA/EPSN/NFL/MLB branding. As a journalist, performer, actor, and intellectual, George Plimpton definitely had his limits. Plimpton! does as well, though thanks to its informative nature, we can gladly overlook them to enjoy the journey onscreen.
Not guilty, but not great either. A solid overview.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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