“The Last Dance” was billed by ESPN as a behind-the-scenes documentary, and a 10-part odyssey at that.
But the explicit understanding that Michael Jordan would have input and final say through every step of the series’ editorial process should affect the lens through which we perceive it. As Ken Burns told the Wall Street Journal recently, “The Last Dance” is not good journalism, nor is it good history. No matter how much enjoyment you’ve gotten from the doc, it’s hard to argue with that point.
That doesn’t make “The Last Dance” unentertaining, or bad, or not worth appreciating. It simply means that open-ended questions exist about what is reasonable to expect from the series and if the trade-offs that were made to create it compromise those expectations.
Pablo Torre, who, notably, is employed by ESPN, laid out those questions and offered his perspective on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh.
“Michael Jordan’s participation (in the doc), I think we’d all agree, is the most important thing,” Torre told Haberstroh when asked how he evaluates “The Last Dance” in comparison to more journalistic documentaries such as “O.J.: Made in America,” which was also produced by ESPN. “Yes, there are editorial trade-offs. If you’re like, ‘This is going to be a searing portrait of Michael Jordan, except he’s not going to be involved,’ I don’t think we’re, I don’t know, five percent as interested in this thing. So what does that become? To me, it becomes a different sort of documentary project.
“If your standard for this is, I was expecting a searing look into race in America told through the lens of this insane figure in American history, like, that’s 'O.J.(: Made in America).' Go do that. If you’re looking for a story that is told through the eyes of the participants, namely Michael Jordan, it’s this.”
Torre drew an analog between “The Last Dance” and “The Defiant Ones,” an HBO mini-series that detailed the relationship between Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine as Dre forged an immensely successful and pioneering music career. Dre had a producer credit on the film.
“I loved it (“The Defiant Ones”), and I loved it with the understanding that Dr. Dre has a producer credit on it. I understood that this is not going to tell us the full story,” Torre told Haberstroh. “As long as they’re not lying to us in the advertising of this thing and the marketing of it, just give me the information that I need so I can make an educated sort of judgement as a viewer.
“Because what you get as that trade-off is access. And access is a plague on journalism so often. But for a project like this, it’s also essential. So, to me, I thought it (“The Last Dance”) was over-delivering on its promise of, is this going to be fun nostalgia, and certainly under-delivering on stuff that I never expected of it in the first place.”
It wasn’t reasonable to expect “The Last Dance” to be completely tell-all, objective or in any way an exposé from the beginning. It’s public knowledge that Jordan’s sign-off was required to dust off the behind-the-scenes NBA Entertainment footage that has been featured so prominently in the doc — an agreement that's reportedly been in place since 1997. It’s that footage, in addition to the oft-reclusive Jordan’s own insights, that make this entertainment event so compelling.
But Jordan being afforded editorial oversight makes the film just that: an entertainment event. Somewhat educational, supremely nostalgic, but hardly objective.
It’s why the story of the 1997-98 Bulls has, in truth, pretty much entirely centered on Jordan to this point, with detours here and there. It’s why it’s important to absorb certain sensitive segments (e.g. the detailing of Jordan’s gambling controversies) as being shared through Jordan’s lens — or at least, a lens that he agreed to.
But so was the cost of bringing “The Last Dance” to life. As Torre said, how the viewer chooses to internalize and rationalize that reality in their consumption of the series is entirely personal. There is no bad way to watch or perceive a film. But there is an informed way to do so.