Broadly speaking, this 30 For 30 entry fits with other tales of brash, arrogant football teams that won big, then promptly self-destructed from all their dysfunction. With apologies to the great “Pony Excess,” no football-centric 30 For 30 can top the sheer outsize ridiculousness of the two entries chronicling “The U,” and the 1985 Chicago Bears make a real effort to be the professional equivalent of those outlaw Miami Hurricanes squads. As recounted in tonight’s two-hour film, these Chicago Bears made a habit of knocking opposing quarterbacks out of games, exacted vengeance for perceived slights by vanquished foes, and considered the Super Bowl such a foregone conclusion—which it was—that they spent most of the preceding week in New Orleans partying as hard as they could. The 1985 Bears have a very solid claim to make as the greatest single season in NFL history, and a recurrent theme of the interviews with the players is that it’s a massive disappointment, maybe even failure, that they only won a single championship.
The best and most affecting segment of “The ’85 Bears” comes toward the end, as the players start talking about two star Bears who have since died: Walter Payton, perhaps the greatest running back ever, died in 1999 of a rare liver condition, while safety Dave Duerson committed suicide in 2011 after struggling with concussion-induced brain trauma, or CTE. Players talk candidly about their own concerns about what damage playing the game has done to them, with linebacker Otis Wilson discussing the preparations he’s made in case his mind fails him. Some are fortunate enough to talk in hypotheticals, but this is already reality for quarterback Jim McMahon, who works on daily jigsaw puzzles to keep his attention from wandering and submits to regular medical procedures to hold back the symptoms of early-onset dementia. It’s a heartbreaking segment that serves to humanize the famously cocky McMahon. Yet not long before that, some of his former teammates were partly blaming the Bears’ failure to win more Super Bowls on his inability to stay healthy and avoid concussions—something defensive tackle Steve McMichael suggests was exacerbated by opposing teams targeting McMahon for payback for all the injuries the Bears’ defense caused.
That’s not to say it would be fair to draw a direct link from the Bears’ defensive aggressiveness to McMahon being targeted—though the film does highlight a cheap shot that ended McMahon’s 1986 season and the Bears’ best chance to repeat—and then on to McMahon’s current health problems. (Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that football just inherently presents a concussion risk, and especially hard hits might only make a difference on the margins.) But the film is so resolutely linear in its storytelling that it ignores this potential explanation, never asking the players to reflect on how their hard-nosed style might have exacerbated players’ injury risks and long-term health issues. The film doesn’t need to indict its interviewees—again, I’m not necessarily saying these are legitimate connections to make—but it doesn’t even ask the players to reflect on the possibility, instead allowing them to fall back on familiar, unchallenged platitudes about how they would do it all again if given the opportunity. That’s a legitimate perspective—I might as well be upfront and admit it’s not one I quite understand, but that doesn’t matter here—but “The ’85 Bears” is resolutely superficial in its exploration of this issue.
In fairness, the film’s exploration of CTE is plenty deep compared with its exploration of other topics of vital concern: “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” the absolute apex of American sports braggadocio, doesn’t even get mentioned by name! This is where the contrast between “The U” and “The ’85 Bears” is at its starkest, and the comparison does tonight’s film no favors. The earlier movie paid plenty of attention to the Miami Hurricanes’ most infamous moments—the team wearing fatigues to the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, Randal Hill running into the tunnel after a touchdown—and got the players to talk in detail about the thinking behind it and their perspective on them decades later. It’s not that the Bears need to condemn “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” especially since it’s delightfully awful and the team backed it up by winning the championship, but it’s bizarre that the film ignores it entirely in favor of lengthy discussion about how the Bears redefined how football teams could approach marketing, or something. (It’s possible the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights to play any of the music video, but then the film does just fine writing around their lack of Super Bowl footage.)
The closest thing to a narrative framework for the film is its exploration of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who is the only coach in Super Bowl history to be carried off the field alongside his head coach. Ryan has suffered several maladies that now leave him barely able to speak, meaning his most sustained present-day contribution comes in the form of a letter that only some of his players are emotionally prepared to read out loud. As the architect of the team’s dominant 46 defensive formation, Ryan essentially ran his own team separate from head coach Mike Ditka’s offense, as the two coaches were, if the film is to be believed, basically not on speaking terms throughout their time together on the team. Mike Singletary’s present-day visit to his old coach offers an emotional digression from the story, as the Hall of Famer explains in his interviews that he wouldn’t be the man he is today without Buddy Ryan. As powerful as that sequence is, it doesn’t quite feel like it fits with what surrounds it, which is a fairly standard recitation of the Bears’ march to championship glory. The framing device suggests there’s a Buddy Ryan biography—or perhaps a film primarily concerned with Ryan and Ditka’s behind-the-scenes rivalry—hidden inside here, but that’s not what the rest of the film is.
All of which is to say that “The ’85 Bears” has plenty of compelling elements and larger-than-life personalities, but it lacks either the overarching thesis that might tie all those pieces together or the kind of introspection in its interviews that could paper over those faults. The film’s examination of how CTE has affected the players is moving in part because a lot of what comes before plays like standard hagiography of a legendary team, but that can only do so much to compensate for the rote presentation of the rest of the film. That’s not the worst thing, as these Bears are fascinating and ridiculous enough that just turning on the camera and letting the likes of McMahon, McMichael, Singletary, Ditka, and William “Refrigerator” Perry talk is going to produce decently entertaining results. There just isn’t that extra something that would make this a must-watch in the way that the best 30 For 30 stories are. The 1985 Chicago Bears are a remarkable story, but compared with some of this series’ other topics, they are almost too famous and too obvious a selection to make, and the film never finds a way to tighten its focus to something more powerful than just recounting how amazing if ultimately self-destructive this team was. What remains is a decent overview of a half-dozen incredible stories, when a film focused on just any single one of those might well have been far more incisive.
- One omission from the list of interviewees is Ron Rivera, who was a rookie defensive backup on the 1985 team. He’s more notable now as the coach of the Carolina Panthers, who have also ridden a great defense and a game-changing (and occasionally, if unfairly, controversial) quarterback to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl berth against what sure looks like an overmatched AFC team. In fairness, it’s not as though the filmmakers could have known all that when they were shooting the interviews, and I can imagine an active head coach like Rivera might have been too busy to talk about a team he was only a peripheral part of.
- Vince Vaughn executive-produced and provided the narration for the film. I found his voice is just recognizable enough to be distracting, and his relatively flat delivery didn’t do a whole lot to make up for that. But then, narrating a 30 For 30 seems like a pretty thankless task—I’ve not seen all of them, but I’m not sure I could name any narrated entry where the voiceover actually enhances the experience beyond, you know, providing necessary exposition.
- Mike Ditka is an insufferable ass as a modern-day football commentator and occasionally political dabbler—and I say this as a Chicago sports fan!—but he’s generally on the right side of palatable here. If there’s any context where it makes sense for Mike Ditka to just be Mike Ditka, this has to be it.