There's nothing like a film about a champion. Two surprisingly fascinating documentary films about two extraordinary people were released this year: Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way, directed by the politician's daughter, and This is What They Want, a film about retired tennis champ Jimmy Connors. Both films were entered in the Hamptons International Film Festival in October, and made screening rounds in 2013, reminding us about the days when people were famous for a reason.
Both films chronicle the competitive lives of charismatic path pavers who were icons of a softer, gentler world. The Connors film focuses on the "aging" Jimmy Connors' match against the younger Aaron Krickstein. The Ferraro film follows her spitfire, no-nonsense run for vice president in the race that ended with Ronald Reagan securing his second term.
Documentary and news footage from the era of the stories defines the characters they portray. Jimmy Connors returned to tennis and made a comeback when he was 39 years old. He was a force of nature, and you learn from him, that not only being an incredible athlete makes you a champion. Connors knew how to harness his own charisma and harvest the emotions of the fans. It's fascinating watching him rally the crowd in his favor at the 1991 U.S. Open, change the energy within the stadium, and psychologically deflate the momentum of his bewildered opponent. It's equally breathtaking to watch the footage of the 1984 Democratic National Convention, when the crowd overwhelms Geraldine Ferraro at the podium with their devotion, elevating her to goddess status as one who apparently possessed more intrigue, charisma and magnetism then her presidential running mate, Walter Mondale. You can still feel the emotions in that Convention Hall by watching the footage almost 30 years later, and it brings you back to a time when political candidates were accomplished people to be admired, rather than embarrassing fools or spotlight hogs.
The best thing about both films is that the footage, and through it, the portrayal of the characters and the historical events that surrounded them speaks for itself . The Connors film is narrated by sports legends like John McEnroe and Mary Carillo, as well as the uber-athletic subject himself. Paving the Way is narrated by Ferraro, who died of cancer in 2011, as well as political luminaries like the Clintons, Madeleine Albright, and Walter Mondale. But neither documentary needs the talking heads to tell the stories. The charisma alone that both champions gifted to their fans and that leaps off the screen, converted what could have been humdrum biography documentaries into invigorating film stories. Seeing real life then is more exciting than watching reality today, especially since both characters were bigger than life.
Even if you're not a fan of tennis or politics, both films deliver a feel-good look back to a simpler time not that long ago, through the haircuts, the clothing, the quality of characters, and the lack of life stress that existed in the days when people could afford to buy a ticket to a stadium tennis match or travel to be part of the Democratic National Convention. They were the days before the World Wide Web controlled our lives and shaped our behavior. Both Connors and Ferraro were free for the most part to be themselves, without the worry of how their actions or behaviors could go viral in seconds, trashed and tweeted with hatred and criticism around the world. Connors cursed, threw tantrums, and made faces at the umpire without ruining his career. Geraldine showed her grit and substance (although she took a beating in the news media for initially refusing to turn over her husband's financial records, even when it wasn't legally required) without being subject to the hate factory of the web.
Looking back, that "free to be you and me" pre-internet era, seemed to make our lives more carefree, our victories sweeter, and our losses and defeats easier to bear.