September 14, 2009
(Ed. Note: "Kings Ransom" played at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday. This review is from a rough cut of the film provided by ESPN.)
"Kings Ransom" may be a hockey documentary, but some of its best moments occur on the golf course.
That's where director Peter Berg ("Hancock," "Friday Night Lights") has several fascinating, disarming conversations with Wayne Gretzky about his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 9, 1988. It feels like you're eavesdropping on a long walk spoiled by acrimonious recollections of the trade's genesis, execution and impact. It's a framing device used throughout the hour-long documentary that lends an element of candidness; after all, the greens are where politically incorrect ideas are shared between men, and where hands shake on previously inconceivable business deals, right?
In other words, it's the perfect place to discuss The Gretzky Trade.
"Kings Ransom," which broadcasts Oct. 6 on ESPN and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday, is part of ESPN Films' "30 for 30" anniversary documentary series. Berg serves that general audience well with a straightforward retelling of the Gretzky saga, adding a few stylistic touches that work (like the golf course diversions) and that don't (Gretzky standing in an empty arena, staring at an ice-less floor ... yawn).
There isn't a lot here that longtime hockey fans can't quote chapter and verse, but that's fine: Berg's more interested in the culture impact of the trade than how many goals Jimmy Carson had as an Oiler (50 -- now go win that bar bet.)
The ESPN-ization of the Gretzky trade yields a fresh take on old material: This is a Los Angeleno's view of hockey history, which is to say that Berg's as good hitting the emotional notes of Gretzky's bitter end in Edmonton as he is documenting the moment Gretzky changed hockey in America -- for better or worse.
Even if the director's main subject is, at times, as rhetorically compelling as a perturbed librarian.
The difference between a good documentary and a great documentary is often the protagonist; whether that's some Michael Moore-ian provocateur on camera or someone like, say, Robert McNamara in Errol Morris's "The Fog of War."
Gretzky's actually the film's biggest letdown. There's an emotional component missing here. Even when he's candid, there are moments of contradiction: Gretzky opens "Kings Ransom" by telling us, "I wasn't mad. Probably disappointed" when owner Peter Pocklington and the Oilers traded him, before later telling Berg, "I was mad they were trying to trade me. So I left."
When we hear Gretzky talk about having the opportunity to kill the trade on the day it was announced, it's more recitation of facts than anything soul-baring.
Gretzky's more entrancing in archival footage than in the fresh material -- one of Berg's best touches is allowing Gretzky's tear-filled press conference to play out in excruciating real-time. At that moment in the film, it's literally like watching the face of hockey weep.
Without Gretzky providing much sizzle, Berg relies on several talking heads to varying degrees of effectiveness. Former Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, one of the best, spills tantalizing back-story on the trade and Gretzky's impact on LA. Pocklington rehashes his side of the story, as does current New York Rangers President and former Edmonton Oilers GM Glen Sather in a few tense, memorable appearances.
Janet Gretzky speaks during a segment on her storybook wedding to Wayne, which sharply turns into a squirm-inducing review of her "Yoko"-ization by Oilers fans and media. One of Berg's strongest passages is a somber look at the aftermath of the trade, as Edmonton fans blamed Janet, burned Oilers in effigy, sent death threats to team management and spray-painted the letters "LA" on an Edmonton city sign. It's enthralling stuff. (Memo to Chris Pronger(notes): You got off easy.)
But as much as Edmonton is the focus, "Kings Ransom" is an LA Story. It's about a meandering franchise suddenly becoming one of the hottest tickets in sports thanks to a single athlete. It's about a steady stream of famous faces, including Ronald Reagan, suddenly populating the seats in The Forum like it was a trendy new restaurant. (Clever touch by Berg: Showing proud Canadians John Candy and Michael J. Fox glad-handing Gretz after a Los Angeles hockey game.)
Again, Berg's less interested with what happens on the ice -- the fates of the Oilers, Kings and Gretzky himself are only discussed briefly before the credits roll.
He's after that ESPN-journalistic, tap-into-the-zeitgeist sports analysis. It works best in these LA moments, because "Kings Ransom" clearly sets up juxtaposition between the religious fervor for hockey in Edmonton and the attitude in Hollywood, where the Kings are a passing fancy for the famous and the fervor is about the man playing the game rather than the game itself. Taken in context, it's almost damning of Gretzky's time with the Kings.
When Berg gets to the "was it worth it?" confrontation, it's Gretzky who defends his move to Los Angeles and the spread of the NHL in warm-weather U.S. climates. It takes on added poignancy when one considers the Gretzky coached/owned Phoenix Coyotes are teetering on the brink of relocation to Canada, and that The Great One could lose millions in the process. Gretzky, in one of his few truly candid moments, says of the trade:
"There was a calling for me. That the game was bigger than Wayne Gretzky."
The Coyotes made the playoffs under Gretzky as many times as he won the Cup after leaving Edmonton: zero. Berg's verbal parrying with Gretzky over his regrets or misgivings about the trade get us close to emotional revelations but can't quite crack the calm façade. Berg works hard in crafting an effective hour of hockey nostalgia, but ultimately that detachment from Gretzky circa 2009 is the difference between a Good One and a Great One for ESPN.