We may live in a post-truth world, but most viewers still settle for watching documentaries under the assumption that what we’re going to be treated to is at least some version of “truth.” Surely we think ‘truth’ is what most documentary filmmakers strive for.
Maybe because of a background in comedy – Lady Dynamite, Comedy Bang! Pop! – instead of non-fiction, Ben Berman doesn’t operate on that level. Berman, who made his documentary debut with the 2019 Sundance entry The great Johnathan documentary, is more interested in the effort people make to avoid the truth. He’s not mad at liars – he’s not Alex Gibney – but he’s fascinated with subterfuge itself, not always the motivation for it or the reality behind it.
Documentary about American gladiators
It comes down to
Storytelling is captivating, but hard truths seem elusive.
Berman’s new movie is ESPN’s two-part movie Documentary about American gladiatorswhich is broadcast under the 30 for 30 banner though, as the director candidly acknowledges in the credits of the second installment, anyone expecting this to be a “sports movie” is likely to be disappointed. Instead of, Documentary about American gladiators is part exercise in amused nostalgia and part diligent comedic shell game, a director describing his own process of making a movie complicated by its evasive primary subject.
Taken on those playful terms, Documentary about American gladiators is constantly entertaining throughout its three hours. However, Berman has seemingly accepted that because one aspect of the “truth” of his story is unknowable, other aspects of the truth are almost irrelevant, making it a truly frustrating piece of journalism. One’s ability to focus on the former (entertainment) will depend on one’s willingness to accept that the documentary doesn’t really aspire to be the latter (journalism).
The doc opens with Johnny Ferraro telling his own story, a journey from Erie, Pennsylvania Elvis impersonator to Hollywood striver to creator of American gladiatorswhich premiered in syndication in 1989 and over its seven seasons became one of the most recognizable and beloved (and maligned) brands of the time.
Ferraro traces his version of the story and Berman seems to stick to it, weaving in memories of various producers and key figures such as art director and game designer Steve Graziani, one of the men responsible for indelible leagues like Joust, Gauntlet and the treacherous Skytrack. Over the years American gladiators had dozens of titular gladiators and Berman has access to some of them, including Deron “Malibu” McBee, Mike “Gemini” Horton, Salina “Elektra” Bartunek, and Billy “Thunder” Smith, as well as a handful of contestants, led by Wesley “2 Scoops” Berry.
Ferraro is amiable and outspoken, except in all the ways where he’s clearly evasive. As he puts it to Berman, “Are you going to tell the right story? Is your vision my vision?”
Berman seems to agree, though he films Ferraro’s interview segments in view of the artificiality of his story, placing him in staged environments – a dingy Hollywood-style hotel, as he walks the Venice Beach boardwalk, too though Ferraro says he hates the beach. American gladiators director Bob Levy identifies himself as “one of the Top 10 directors” in television history in terms of “having fun,” but Berman is clearly trying to compete. Then he brings up… Dann Carr.
As fans of the franchise know, Carr — credited as “Dan” on the show, but “Dann” throughout the documentary — is listed as the co-creator of the series, but contestant after contestant has never claimed him. to have heard. What happened to Ferraro and Carr? Why does it seem that Berman was unable to interview him? And can you tell the story of American gladiators without Dann Carr?
The documentary, especially in the second half, perhaps becomes more focused on that last question than on getting a single answer to either of the first two questions. Yes, there are plenty of parties involved in the documentary, but besides Carr, fans will likely have a checklist of their favorite gladiators who are absent – definitely starting with Nitro and Ice.
With Berman as a frequently heard and seen part of the project, the story is as much about the way the story is told as the story itself as the filmmaker seeks different solutions to his access problems. He tries to track down Carr’s friends and loved ones, only to discover that their stories don’t always add up. He engages in extensive re-enactments to simulate Carr’s voice and interweaves other absent voices using samples from audiobooks and even recordings of unspecified provenance. Without being identical, there are similarities to Berman’s approach to his Amazing Johnathan film, where the limitations of the genre and the limitation of his subjects were probably ultimately more interesting to him than the subjects.
And the result is really consistently engaging and often very funny, and by making so much of his own journey in the present tense, Berman is cleverly able to turn some of the basic details of his process into narrative surprises. Plus, so you don’t worry about that Documentary about American gladiators is lost in formal ouroboros, there’s a ton of great footage of muscular people with 80s hair bludgeoning each other with cotton swabs and getting gory injuries.
But only because we may never know who made what aspects of it American gladiators and which of those aspects were integral to the show becoming a sensation, and just because Dann Carr is presented as an apparent mystery that doesn’t necessarily want to be solved doesn’t mean there aren’t things we Doing know about American gladiators. I wish Berman invested as actively in those elements.
The available gladiators all tell very candid stories of injuries and steroid use and subsequent drug addictions that ended careers and, in some cases, lives. Ferraro doesn’t address that and Berman doesn’t put him on the scene (and Billy “Thunder” Smith’s death in 2021 is barely acknowledged). The available gladiators tell crazy stories about how little they were paid and how they were overworked and exploited. Ferraro tiptoes around that and Berman doesn’t put him on the spot. There’s an audio recording of Lori “Ice” Feterick saying the show wouldn’t allow her to bring her girlfriend to events because it didn’t match the producers’ desired family-friendly image, but Ferraro has nothing to say on that subject.
It’s not like Ferraro fooled Berman. With brutal editing and winking chyrons, the director is very transparent in his realization that his star is a guy. But he’s amused and distracted by Ferraro, and some crucial questions don’t even seem to be asked. The biggest one, which ties into every aspect of the documentary, is “Where Did the Money Go?” American gladiators was a huge hit. Someone got rich. Was it the studio? Dick Askin, former president of Samuel Goldwyn Television, is a dust-free talking head. Was it Ferrari? If so, the interviewee defending him with the assessment “Johnny has never screwed anyone more than he gave them…” is bizarrely incorrect and no one should take anything for granted here.
Or maybe that’s the point: American gladiators was all about style over substance and Berman made a documentary about that disconnect where he deliberately placed his own style over a substance that may or may not exist. Although I was never less than busy with The American Gladiator Documentary at over three hours in length, I wonder if I might have been more willing to embrace the approach if it had been 90 minutes with no destination instead.