The great sports documentary filmmakers give their audience a deeper understanding of the topic they're capturing, going much further than just telling a story. Showing the 'how' and the 'why' takes the sporting event to a different level, offering another dimension of insight to the viewer, even those with prior knowledge of the story. Furthermore, these acclaimed documentaries manage to take their viewers on an emotional journey, shifting the narrative from average sports-related competition to a more poignant place. These are some of the best sports documentaries ever made.
1. Free Solo (2018)
A 2018 Oscar winner, Free Solo follows the remarkable journey of American climber Alex Honnold, as he attempts to become the first person to scale El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Honnold isn't any ordinary climber, he specializes in free soloing - scaling sheer rock-faces void of any rocks - a hobby almost impossible to comprehend even for the most ardent adrenaline junkies. What makes Free Solo so captivating is the constant, very real possibility of its protagonist- or its film crew - plummeting to their certain death with just one unfortunate misplaced step. As if that's not dramatic enough, Honnold acquires a girlfriend midway through the film, whose understandable angst gives the piece an extra emotive edge.
2. Senna (2010)
Asif Kapadia's retelling of the life of Ayrton Senna truly set a new bar for sports documentaries when it was released ten years ago. By using only archive footage and resisting talking heads, the film draws its viewer closer to Senna, wiring them directly into the Brazilian racing driver's public and private moments. An enthralling ride from start to finish, Kapadia's film does justice to a remarkable, but ultimately tragic life of one of F1's favorite sons.
3. The Last Dance (2020)
Netflix's timeline-hopping blockbuster chronicling Michael Jordan's last season with the Chicago Bulls - but really his career in general - is an ode to the great number 23. Going for an unprecedented sixth NBA title in eight years, The Last Dance expertly captures the dogmatic determination, prodigious talent and cultural relevance of the greatest basketball player of all time. Whilst the film centers around MJ, his teammates and various staff members affiliated with the Bulls provide fascinating depth to the story - legendary defensive player and all-round hellraiser Dennis Rodman, for example, could easily have a documentary of his own. Ultimately, The Last Dance is an inspirational piece of work, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to how an unassuming sophomore from Wilmington, North Carolina, went on to transcend the sport he dominated and become the most commercially-successful athlete of all time.
4. Hillsborough (2016)
This Bafta-winning film takes a detailed look at the infamous Hillsborough disaster of 1989 when 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death during their team's FA Cup semi-final clash with Nottingham Forest. In what is widely regarded as the darkest day in British sport, this calamitous mismanagement by police in charge of crowd control at the Sheffield stadium led to multiple inquests, finally resulting in prosecutions for those deemed responsible. Difficult to watch at times, the film delves into the disaster and the unforgivable institutional cover-up that followed and gives a platform to some of those who were there that day to recall their experience. Not easy viewing, but necessary nonetheless.