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On The 'Plimpton!' I Saw And The George Plimpton I Read

SB Nation DC's Senior Editor reviews a new documentary about one of his heroes, and offers up an appreciation of his own.

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George Plimpton, who died nine years ago this September, is primarily known for three things: his founding and five-decade editorship of The Paris Review; his participatory journalism, primarily in the world of sports, which produced such masterpieces as Paper Lion, Shadow Box, and Open Net; and his ubiquitous life at the margins of pop culture, a life which included memorable cameos on The Simpsons and in Good Will Hunting, among others. I do not know what the exact size of the intersection of this particular Venn diagram is, but I will wager that it is not large.

So a part of me is grateful to Luke Poling and Tom Bean, who have tried to give Plimpton the treatment he richly deserves in their 88-minute documentary "Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself," which had its world premiere at the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival in Silver Spring Thursday night.

It is a tough task to capture a career as varied as Plimpton's in 88 minutes. Nevertheless, I left the theater feeling that Poling and Bean had missed some wonderful opportunities to deepen the narrative, misses which were all the more perplexing considering that they had come to know Plimpton, as I had, through his sportswriting. (Open Net, an account of Plimpton's time as a goaltender with the Boston Bruins, was specifically cited as a favorite by Poling).

The first, and most egregious, miss is the film's utter failure to mention or reference in any way at all "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch." This story, written by Plimpton for Sports Illustrated's April 1, 1985 issue, immortalized a fictional pitcher for the New York Mets who had studied yoga in Tibet, took the mound wearing a hiking boot, and hurled a baseball at speeds of 168 miles per hour.

The story is, of course, a quaint product of the pre-Internet age, but the film's disservice in not mentioning it lies in one of its themes that is broached, set aside, and picked up again before petering out unsatisfactorily. That theme is Plimpton's own feeling of inferiority compared to the literary lights who graced the pages of The Paris Review in general (a who's who of 20th century fiction), and Ernest Hemingway in particular. Whatever misgivings Plimpton or his friends may have had about his own work, the film might have asked the question which I ask now: Could Hemingway have created a Sidd Finch? Could anyone else have? (At least Plimpton's first wife acknowledges on camera that the first sentence of Paper Lion, "I decided finally to pack the football," is worthy of a Hemingway comparison.)

Other misses pile up. Plimpton's round with Archie Moore, another of his participatory journalism exercises, is mentioned, but his friendship with Muhammad Ali, which forms the centerpiece of what I think is Plimpton's best book, Shadow Box, is passed over altogether.

Poling and Bean do mention Plimpton's friendship with, and campaigning for, Robert F. Kennedy in the 1968 election. (Plimpton was one of a group of men that wrestled Kennedy's assassin Sirhan Sirhan to the ground, an experience which must have deeply traumatized him, since he never spoke or wrote about it again). The best find in the whole film is the audio recording of Plimpton's deposition to the Los Angeles Police, which is the closest we ever come to hearing this cool, calm and debonair man break down.

However, the filmmakers would have done well to contrast this with Plimpton's own feelings of activist impotence. In Shadow Box, he describes his desperate desire to do something for Ali after the fighter had been stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. He gets as far as writing one line of a letter to then-New York Senator Jacob Javits ("Dear Senator, I think you'll agree something is wrong here.") before abandoning it. After Ali loses the first of his three epic fights against Joe Frazier, Plimpton waits outside Ali's hospital, thinking of "our commitments to him, and how little effect they had."

The film does have its moments. In addition to the Kennedy bit mentioned above, there is some wonderful preserved footage of his participatory adventures, which included stints with the New York Philharmonic and Ringling Brothers Circus as a trapeze artist. The footage of Plimpton, by then in his 50s, stopping a penalty shot for the Bruins in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyers is downright heartwarming.

Equally affecting is when Plimpton's family tells of his personality (an austere New England type that has not yet died out) as well as the effect his late nights as a society host had on them. But again, if Poling and Bean had taken another page through the Sports Illustrated archive, they might have found "Medora Goes To The Game," the only story of Plimpton's that was chosen for the epic Best American Sports Writing of the Century anthology.

I had ulterior motives (besides the chance to see The Game) in taking Medora to Cambridge. My vague hope was that she would become impressed enough with Harvard to think about working hard at her studies so she might go there one day. I knew it wasn't important where she went as long as she approved of the choice herself. But I hoped it wasn't going to be Yale. After all, it would be one thing to sit in the stands and root for her as she performed for the Smith College field hockey team, or the Rutgers gymnastic squad, or whatever, but to think of her across the football field joyfully waving a blue pennant and yelling "Bowwow-wow!" with the Yale team poised on the Harvard goal line, while I raise a feeble "Hold 'em!" across the way, is a possibility too intolerable to consider.

Wouldn't citing something like this have gone a long way toward tying the disparate threads together? (Incidentally, how is it that over 30 years have passed since this story was written, and yet it remains one of the few media depictions of fathers and daughters bonding over sports, or at least attempting, as opposed to the dozens of examples of maudlin, repetitive father-son tripe we've been subjected to?)

Poling and Bean clearly produced this film from somewhere near the same place of admiration for Plimpton that this review does. For me, anyway, that's exactly what makes it so disappointing.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5. Read "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch," "Shadow Box," "Paper Lion," and/or "Open Net" instead.

'Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself!' will be screened again Saturday, June 23 at noon in the AFI Silver Theatre 2 in Silver Spring.