In hoops parlance, ESPN's first original movie —A Season on the Brink —
gets a good look at the basket, but ultimately, the shot hits the rim.
To ESPN's credit, it's not for lack of trying. The sports network tackles an important and controversial subject, college basketball coach Bobby Knight, and mounts a credible production with distinguished actor Brian Dennehy in the lead role.
But despite the rich source material — John Feinstein's best-selling book of the same name, which chronicled Knight's coaching the Indiana University Hoosiers during the 1985-86 season — the movie comes across as neither fish nor fowl. It's unsatisfying as a documentary and falls flat as a drama.
In the book, Feinstein had plenty of room to draw an intimate and richly nuanced portrait of a complex man capable of both sadistic fury and compassionate sensitivity, and that helped to overcome the lack of a dramatic climax to an undistinguished campaign. But the centrality of the mediocre season proves fatal to the movie, whose true subject, of course, is the volcanic and unpredictable Knight.
While Knight dominates the movie, the film doesn't have the luxury of fully exploiting a life filled with such indelible peaks (three national championships) and valleys (being accused of hitting a policeman after a game in Puerto Rico; getting fired from Indiana for abusive behavior, such as putting his hands around a player's throat) — and that seriously limits its narrative juice.
Given its limited time frame, the movie would probably have benefited from a more definitive point-of-view on Knight as either an obnoxious, vulgar, jerk or a misunderstood tough guy with a heart of gold.
Dennehy is convincing as both the abusive, tyrannical and foul-mouthed Knight (ESPN is concurrently running an edited version on ESPN2) and the generous, caring mentor. But he is not convincing as a man in his mid-40s, as Knight was during the 1985-86 season. Dennehy, who is close to Knight's real age, plays him as an aging King Lear type, which he clearly wasn't 16 years ago — perhaps making his megalomania even more frightening.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, fails to make an impression, due to a lethal combination of constricted roles and poor acting. But despite its missteps, A Season on the Brink
does offer a revealing look at a man whose skills have enabled him to reach the top of his profession, but whose unabated anger and inflated ego have sadly deprived his young players the simple joy and fun of playing what is, after all, a game.
A Season on the Brink
premieres March 10 at 8 p.m. on ESPN and ESPN2.