Documentary

Published on March 24th, 2013 | by Clint Davis

ESPN 30 for 30: Survive and Advance [2013]

ESPN 30 for 30: Survive and Advance [2013] Clint Davis

Summary: Jonathan Hock's chronicle of the 1983 NC State Wolfpack and their legendary coach Jim Valvano doesn't live up to the legacy of either.

2.5

Mediocre


User Rating: 0 (0 votes)

NR  |  100 min.

Director: Jonathan Hock

Original Airdate: March 17, 2013  |  Network: ESPN

Besides being a lifelong cinephile, I’ve been fixated on sports since I was a teenager, so I’m particularly intrigued when the two combine for a meaningful project.  In my mind, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series is among the most important work done in nonfiction filmmaking this century.  As the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2010, they decided to look back at 30 of the most interesting sports stories of that time period, thus 30 films for 30 years.

The documentaries have ranged from experimental (June 17, 1994) to conventional (Four Days in October), also from tearjerkers (Without Bias) to unabashed pump-up sessions (The U).  As of March, 2013, the series includes 50 films from various directors.  Overall, I’ve been a huge fan of the collection and have seen each entry at least once.

I was excited when ESPN announced its next batch of 30 for 30 features and among them would be a look at the nail-biting run of the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack basketball team to an eventual NCAA Championship.  This team played during arguably the greatest era in college hoops history, facing future legends like Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Clyde Drexler during a single season.  Their mythology is only made greater by the fact that their title match against Houston may be the greatest single game ever, and their head coach Jim Valvano remains one of the most fabled and inspirational icons in recent sports history.

Survive and Advance (Valvano’s message to his team during the ’83 tournament) wasn’t director Jonathan Hock’s first entry to the 30 for 30 canon.  He previously helmed 2011’s Unguarded, which, as a sappy tale of redemption, was one of my least-favorite installments of the series.  The issues I have with his latest effort are that it seems unfocused and extremely generous with its praise of the team at its center.

It’s not that the 1983 NC State Wolfpack wasn’t a great story with their share of classic moments on the court, it’s just that outside of Valvano, they weren’t a particularly entertaining bunch.  For over 1.5 hours, we cut between game film, recent interviews with players, a bittersweet reunion of the guys on the heels of teammate Lorenzo Charles’s death, and clips of a memorable speech given by Valvano.

Jim Valvano celebrates with Dereck Whittenburg following NC State’s 1983 NCAA title.

Like many sports fans, Jim Valvano holds a special place in my heart as a personable and fun-loving man in the often too-serious world of competitive athletics.  He’s also a tragic figure, as his life was eventually taken by cancer–but this is where Valvano’s legacy lives on, in the million’s of dollars in funds raised for cancer research by his charity.  As I was watching Survive and Advance, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie meandered too long on moments of little significance, while rushing through the lasting legacy of that 1983 team.

I was left confused regarding the central subject of the movie–was it meant to tell the story of the 1983 title team, a look at the team’s lasting legacy in sports history, or a look at the life and times of Jim Valvano?  There wasn’t enough of any of the above elements to make a case for a single focus, instead it felt like it was trying to tell too many stories.  There are some standout moments, like Dereck Whittenburg telling the story behind his iconic post-game hug with Valvano, or the many clips of Coach V’s passionate speeches and amusing antics.

Honestly, the movie left me wishing Hock had made Valvano’s life and legacy its central topic.  Whittenburg and Terry Gannon are truthfully the only guys from the team whose personalities come through on screen.  Valvano was vastly more interesting and entertaining a figure than the sum of the 1983 NC State squad, and that leaves us wanting more!

The film’s final 20 minutes try to cram in Valvano’s eventual firing from NC State amid the NCAA’s first “Lack of Institutional Control” scandal, his cancer diagnosis, his subsequently touching return to NC State’s basketball court, and his eventual death and fundraising efforts that have followed.  I commend Hock for providing future sports fans with a lasting memory of this magical season, but I had my hopes set on high.

The final year of Valvano’s life could have, and should have been a film all its own.

Buy Survive and Advance on Amazon.

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at TheClintDavis@gmail.com.



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