You have to tip your hat to ESPN for making “A Season on the Brink” its first original movie. No one would have minded if the sports network had gotten its feet wet with an easier subject, something that follows the tried and true sports flick formula of an underdog putting it all together for the climactic Big Game. The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team would have been an obvious crowd-pleaser, or maybe something about the late, sainted Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State team that won the 1983 NCAA basketball championship in a huge upset.
Instead, ESPN decided to film the reputed bestselling sports book of all time, John Feinstein’s 1989 story of the 1985-86 basketball season at Indiana University that is ultimately a character study of the Hoosiers’ mercurial coach, Bob Knight. Brian Dennehy, who plays Knight, has said he was told to think of the movie as being “Patton,” but set in college basketball.
So, good for ESPN. But it doesn’t work. The movie, which debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. EST/5 p.m. PST and is repeated four hours later, shows us the Knight we’ve all seen before. He’s a current figure whose career has been played out on television, so we know what he looks like. We’ve seen him throw a chair across the floor during a game, pound a telephone on the scorer’s table at the NCAA Tournament, grab one of his players by the throat at practice, headbutt another during a timeout, and scream and yell and curse at anyone who displeases him, which is pretty much everyone. We’ve seen all of the things that, if he were a professor, say, and not a winning basketball coach, would have gotten him fired after 30 minutes, not 30 years.
All a movie like this can do is show us a pale imitation. We don’t get to look beneath the surface nastiness, brutality, egomania and bullying of Knight — and see the real nastiness, brutality, egomania and bullying hidden below.
Dennehy’s problem with the role may be that he’s too good an actor. (He’s also, at 63, too old. Knight was 45 at the time.) Just standing at rest, he betrays depths of feeling, levels of sadness and regret that just aren’t there in the real Knight, or at least aren’t visible — or imaginable. Dennehy’s face is open and expressive. Knight’s is beady, ratlike, betraying nothing but a smug assurance that he’s right, always, that he’s never made a mistake, never been wrong, and isn’t likely to be, ever.
There’s an edge to Knight that just isn’t there with Dennehy, whose avuncular side shines through even when he’s saying the nastiest things to his players. Dennehy’s words have a round edge, rumble from his stomach. Knight’s words scrape through his throat. Sure, Dennehy calls one player a “pussy” and berates all of them, constantly, but there isn’t Knight’s trademark in-your-face, out of control, saliva-spewing screaming. Dennehy never lays a hand on his charges, which we know from the choking incident, which was caught on tape — and which we suspect from a slew of other allegations — isn’t the real Bob Knight. Dennehy just can’t capture the nastiness, the rage.
Despite his undeniable basketball knowledge and his years of success, at bottom, what Bob Knight is all about is rage. I don’t know why that is, and this movie doesn’t try to tell us. I’m glad for that. It would have been a better movie if it could have captured that rage, made us feel it, or at least identify with it. “Raging Bull” did that. But there aren’t many “Raging Bulls,” and there’s nothing about “A Season on the Brink” that leads me to believe this could have been one.
More likely, “A Season on the Brink” would have been unwatchable for the attempt. “There is no psychoanalyzing,” executive producer Stan Brooks says in the press materials, “and there’s no going back to his childhood to find out he lost the sled.” I hadn’t read that quote when I watched a rough cut of the film this week, so I found myself dreading that scene, the childhood incident that if only everyone knew about, they’d forgive Knight his trespasses.
“A Season on the Brink” is pretty good at showing Knight for what he is: an abusive asshole who sometimes does nice things for people. Star player Steve Alford’s parents mention his generous side, referring to his phone call to them when Alford was suspended for the Kentucky game for posing for a charity calendar in violation of NCAA rules. Knight is also seen being gruff but kind with both his teenage son and paralyzed former player Landon Turner, whom he went to extraordinary means to help financially, with little fanfare.
But the real Bob Knight is at heart a bully, plain and simple. “A Season on the Brink,” in its understandable attempt to make him a complex, multifaceted character, doesn’t capture that. In one scene Knight, out hunting with assistant coach Kohn Smith after having verbally abused one of his players, explains his philosophy that sometimes the only way to reach a kid is to intimidate him. That “sets up the best conditions for teaching,” and ensures the player will be ready for anything, any kind of pressure, and come game time, or come some rough moment later in life, he won’t crack.
Well, to use one of Knight’s favorite words: bullshit.
I’m sure Knight says stuff like that, and I’ll bet he believes it. But his verbal assaults are all about power. One need only look at the scenes of the real Knight abusing various nonplayers that accompany the closing credits to realize that his harangues are not intended to “set up the best conditions for teaching.” They’re meant to demonstrate power and establish control.
Have you ever wondered why Knight, so successful at the college level, has never considered coaching in the NBA, even when he was out of a job last year? Because NBA players wouldn’t stand for his bullshit. The power relationships are different. Grown men, successful professionals, would stand up to Knight. In fact, so would star college players. That’s why he doesn’t recruit them. Indiana wasn’t exactly a hotbed of future NBA stars during his three decades there.
(A note about the word “bullshit,” and others such as Knight’s professed favorite, “fuck”: Dennehy, as Knight, says them. A lot. The movie will run simultaneously on ESPN, unexpurgated, and ESPN2, with the swearing bleeped out.)
A sports movie is always challenged by having to show action. How can a group of actors match the astonishing athletic ability of Big Ten basketball players? You can get actors who can ball some, and you can hire technical advisors to teach them how to run plays, how to move like a ballplayer, how to shoot this way, not that way, but you just can’t approximate the blinding speed of big-time athletics. “A Season on the Brink” relies on quick cuts and blurred motion, as well as mixed-in archival footage — which betrays, by the way, that the costume designer has let the actors get away with wearing shorts and shirts that are too baggy to be historically accurate. The resulting basketball is about as real as it can be, which still isn’t very real.
That can be forgiven. But a real, believable Bob Knight, in all his ugly, brutal glory, was a necessity for “A Season on the Brink” to have hit the mark.