Cumberbatch or Brett? Brett or Cumberbatch? Or Rathbone?

This series of posts about the stories in the recent collection, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, published by Belanger Books, began by asking the story authors—and you, our Facebook friends—which is your favorite on-screen Holmes/Watson duo? I learned two things: Holmes fans have clear favorites, and their views are strongly held!

I started recording your votes on a small notepad and was soon using both sides of the sheet.

Garnering the most fans (about a third of the total) was the classic 36-episode Granada television series (1984-1994) starring Jeremy Brett, with equal votes to the Watsons of first David Burke, then Edward Hardwicke. Of course, fans did note Brett’s deteriorating performance as the series wore on, due to a series of psychological and medical problems.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman also garnered quite a few votes for the BBC Sherlock series—about a quarter of the total. People said they liked the modern energy of these productions, but I was disappointed to learn (thank you, gossip trade) that the two actors actually don’t like each other. Cumberbatch is the better known, of course, but, in a complete aside, if you want to see Freeman in one of my favorite short comedic films, The Voorman Problem, I think you’ll enjoy it.

There were almost as many votes for Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as for Cumberbatch and Freeman. Still, fans couldn’t help but scoff at the poor characterization of Watson. I suspect it wasn’t Bruce’s fault; he was probably hewing to the instructions of the director, who may have feared audiences wouldn’t understand how smart Holmes was without a dim Watson for contrast.

From here, we get into small numbers, five percent of the voting or so, but what’s surprising is how many portrayals loom so memorably in our minds! Downey and Law, Miller and Liu (with lots of pushback on this one. A bridge too far for some), Caine and Kingsley (Without a Clue), Ronald Howard and Howard Marion-Crawford (first American series, 1954), Peter Cushing and André Morell (The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1959), Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin (Soviet television, 1979-1986). I’ve never seen most of these—or heard of some of them!

And, finally, some respondents thought “on-screen” portrayals was altogether too limiting a construct and proposed Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s performance of both Holmes and Moriarty in the ballet The Great Detective (1953), or the Clive Merrison and Michael Williams BBC Radio versions (1989-1998), and William Gillette, who portrayed Holmes on stage and in a 1916 silent film. And the very favorite depiction for one Holmes fan was the portrayal created in his own book. No one mentioned the various musical versions, probably for good reason.

Contemporary writers, who, in the case of the anthology mentioned, do adhere closely to the canonical conventions, have enthusiastically created adventures to fill in the time gap in which almost none of Conan Doyle’s stories are set and the hundreds of film, television, radio, stage, and other portrayals of these enduring characters show there are many stories still to be had. Or, as Holmes himself said, “One’s ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature.” And contemporary writers continue to explore those limits. Enjoy!

Weekend Movie Strategy

Two movies we’ve seen lately fit nicely on the “not for everybody” shelf. My husband, not being a fan of science fiction, was lukewarm about Dune: Part Two. He might have been less iffy if it weren’t two and three-quarters hours long. I was not bored. Though we generally like movies about World War II and had expected great things of The Zone of Interest, which is an hour shorter than Dune, it seemed kind of endless to me. Here are the deets.

Dune: Part Two
You can’t fault the casting of this film, based on the award-winning Frank Herbert novels of the 1960s, which I remember fondly. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the movie’s cast is impeccable (trailer). Timothèe Chalamet is hero Paul Atreides, Zandaya is his main squeeze. Along with them are Javier Barden, Austin Butler, Josh Brolin, Christopher Walken, Charlotte Rampling, and Stellan Skarsgård, among many others probably well known to hipper audiences. The makeup of the shaved-head, waxen-skinned bad guys, the Harkonnen clan, were truly creepy. Skarsgård as the chief Harkonnen needed three hours of makeup every day he was on set. He was bulked out to the point he was almost unrecognizable, unless he was posing as the “hookah-smoking caterpillar” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a comparison that occurred to me (consciously, at least) before I realized he also smoked a hookah.

The special effects were transporting, especially the worm-surfing, and I wasn’t surprised that the non-desert filming took place in Hungary. There was a sleek Central European brutalist vibe about the Harkonnen’s dwellings.

And it definitely sets you up for Dune: Part Three.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences: 95%.

The Zone of Interest
Based incredibly loosely on a novel by Martin Amis, this is the story of a real-life person, commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hōss, and his wife Hedwig, directed by Jonathan Glazer (trailer). On the surface, if you can ignore the constant rumbling (well-earned Academy Award for sound design) of who-knows-what horrible machinery on the other side of the wall, the couple, with their four children and servants lead a perfectly normal middle-class life.

But of course the situation is not even a bit normal, and they can only lead that life (her, in particular), by absolutely denying the reality of what is going on around them. Their older son is playing with teeth—oh, sure. A fabulous fur coat arrives in a pillowcase—par for the course. Her beautiful garden—“I had help, of course.” Yes, and we know who that help was. Just as we know who their skittish servant is. And the woman Rudolf rapes.

Hōss is played by Christian Friedel and Hedwig by Sandra Hüller (who also played in the Oscar-nominated Anatomy of a Fall). She is amazing, conveying so much, so seemingly effortlessly.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences: 78%.

Who’s the Best Holmes and Watson On-Screen?

I asked this question of a certain kind of Sherlock Holmes expert: people who write stories in the Conan Doyle tradition. Quite a few contemporary writers take inspiration from Victorian England, Holmes’s wide-ranging if idiosyncratic erudition, and Watson’s genial writing style. I’ve had three such stories published and can attest to how much fun it is to don another writer’s hounds tooth suit.

The writers whose picks for best on-screen Holmes/Watson portrayals all appear in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, published last December by Belanger Books. Many of them have written a number of Doyle pastiches, and in the coming weeks, I’ll say more about why and how. They’ve generously shared their love of Holmesiana with me—and now you. *=one vote

*Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce
The 14 Hollywood films in this series are the classic of classics, released between 1939 and 1946, and the vehicle by which Americans first developed a relationship with an on-screen Holmes and Watson. Thus, “for tradition’s sake, maybe Rathbone-Bruce have the edge,” says author Hassan Akram. My own quibble with this series are well put by David Marcum, who says, “Basil Rathbone would be my favorite Holmes if he wasn’t saddled with Boobus Brittanicus Nigel Bruce, who was not Watson.” If you’ve seen the Rathbone/Bruce Hound of the Baskervilles [1939], you’ll know what he means.

***Jeremy Brett/David Burke/Edward Harwicke
In this Granada Television series, which over its 41 episodes (1984 – 1994) involved two actors in the Watson role, is the favorite of DJ Tyrer. “Not only does Jeremy Brett fit very closely to how I imagine Holmes,” he says, “but the series is a faithful adaptation, adding to the illusion.” George Gardner also favored this series, noting Watson’s direct voice and Brett’s “manic edge.” When he was writing, “it was Jeremy Brett’s Holmes that I saw.” Author Shelby Phoenix couldn’t be clearer: “It’s Jeremy Brett and David Burke all the way.” David Marcum takes exception. He says, Brett “did not play Holmes—he played himself, foisting his own physical and mental illnesses on the character.” (Brett took lithium to control his bipolar disorder, and the medication affected his health and appearance.)

**Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law
George Jacobs admits to missing the classic duos and to admiring the films featuring Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law from 2009 and 2011 (directed by Guy Ritchie ). Their “modern take” also appeals to Gustavo Bondoni, and Shelby Phoenix calls them “an iconic version.”

**Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman
This four-season BBC series (airing 2010-2017) is a tight runner-up for author Hassan Akram, and Kevin Thornton says Cumberbatch is “The only [Holmes] who has energized me enough in the last twenty years to sit and watch him,” suggesting an interesting tension between historical and contemporary influences in his creative process! The tabloids suggest the series would have gone on longer if the two stars had gotten along. It’s my current favorite, too, admitting great admiration for Martin Freeman. Interestingly, the producers image of Holmes was as a “high functioning sociopath.”

*Johnny Lee Miller/Lucy Liu
Here’s an unconventional choice. George Jacobs, who admits to missing the classics, found that the CBS series, Elementary, with 154 episodes that aired from 2012 to 2019, “had the best friendship chemistry and kept Holmes’s demons without losing his intrinsic goodness.”

Extra Credit
David Marcum provides a handy list of the many other actors who he believes have successfully played the Great Detective: Arthur Wontner (in a 1930s film series, set in the 30s), Ronald Howard (1954), Douglas Wilmer (in a 1964 – 1965 BBC series), Peter Cushing (a continuation of the BBCseries, airing in 1968), and Ian Richardson (1983). That Holmes has appeared in so many notable productions is irrefutable evidence of his lasting appeal.

So, who’s your favorite?

Photo of Benedict Cumberbatch by Fat Les, cc by 2.0 license.

On the Big Screen: American Fiction

The entertaining film American Fiction is about Black author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison whose highbrow works don’t sell (trailer). As a piece of literary sarcasm, he deploys a pseudonym (Stagg R. Lee) and the persona of a fugitive from justice to pen a novel full of gangsta stuff—shootings, drugs, unknown daddies, you name it. Frustratingly, this pile of clichés, which he regards as trash, is snatched up by a publisher. A big-budget movie deal is in the works.

It seems Americans (book publishers, movie-makers, consumers) are much more willing to accept that depiction of Black life than the reality of an upbringing like Monk’s: a father and two siblings who are doctors, his life as a college instructor.

Racist attitudes about Blacks aren’t the only prejudice explored in the film. The Black family’s prejudice against white people recurs. And, Monk’s brother is a gay plastic surgeon who escaped from Massachusetts to Tucson to put a continent between himself and the homophobic attitudes of his parents.

This may sound a bit heavy, but the script (written by Cord Jefferson) has a light touch and frequent bursts of humor, even when we see our not-best selves. No matter how on-point the humor is, it’s never mean-spirited. Jefferson also directed the film, which stars Jeffrey Wright giving a vulnerable, complex performance as Ellison/Lee, Tracee Ellis Ross as his sister, Sterling K. Brown as brother Clifford, and Leslie Uggams as their widowed mother.

John Ortiz does a perfect job as Ellison’s agent, the only person in on the joke. He’s against the idea at the outset, but when it’s such a runaway financial success, he’s in. Monk is not. He wants to abandon the Stagg R. Lee project, but for various reasons, he’s increasingly stuck. Adam Brody plays the terminally clueless Hollywood producer. He thinks he’s cool with Black people, but . . .

Monk embarks on a predictable romance with public defender Coraline (Erika Alexander). It’s useful to the story, because it hits the nail home for Monk about the downsides of his disengagement with life—ironically, what his fiction suffers from too.

The many closeups of Monk—taking situations in and puzzling over them—give the impression he’s merely an observer of his life , not a participant. In one of many beautiful filmmaking moments, early on, a death occurs that Monk watches through a not-quite-closed hospital door. From down the hall, you see him silhouetted in front of the door, and when he realizes what’s happened, he slowly backs away, distancing himself from another painful reality.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 98%.

Killers of the Flower Moon

You think three hours and 26 minutes makes for an awfully long movie? You’re right. Yet, Martin Scorsese’s true-crime epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, completely held my attention throughout (trailer). Even though I knew the story, because I’d read the fascinating book by David Grann that the movie is based on, still there were no saggy lulls. It is time well spent.

The New York Times calls it “An Unsettling Masterpiece,” which recounts the terrible outcomes of white men’s unrelenting, murderous greed when oil is quite unexpectedly discovered on the Oklahoma lands that had been considered so worthless they might as well be given to the Osage tribe.

If I had a complaint, it would be that there was too much attention to Robert DeNiro as the “King of the Osage Hills,” cattleman William Hale. (Hale even asks people to call him “King.”) He gives an excellent performance, but, unlike the other characters, he doesn’t change; he’s the same throughout—a malicious, manipulative, avaricious local operator—and you understand him from the beginning.

Leonardo DiCaprio sets aside any vanity and is neither handsome nor savvy in playing Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew. Because the tribe members are deemed incompetent to manage their assets, they are required to have white guardians. A quick way for a white man to become a guardian is to marry an Osage woman, just as Burkhart marries Mollie Kyle, memorably played by Lily Gladstone. Then if the wife dies . . . you can guess the rest.

Thanks to the oil, in the early 1920s, Osage members were the per capita richest people in the world. Much too tempting a target for undereducated, unprincipled roughnecks. Believe me, you’re grateful when Jesse Pelmons as Tom White, an agent of J.Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI, appears on the scene.

The movie was filmed on a grand scale in Oklahoma, though there are plenty of intimate, emotion-packed moments in which Mollie and Ernest demonstrate real love for each other. Her penetrating gaze recognizes Hale and Burkhart’s schemes, but loves her husband anyway.

The film is dedicated to Robbie Robertson, whose last project was composing its music.

At the beginning, there is what seems an unnecessary statement by Scorsese about why he made this movie. That opening fits when he gives its closing words as well, bookending the film during a creative approach to telling “what happened next.”

The ill-treatment of indigenous people was one of America’s two greatest original sins and, in the arc of history, this sorry episode was not so very long ago.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 85%.

A Man for All Seasons

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, directed by Paul Mullins, opened October 21 and runs through November 5, 2023. The story of Sir Thomas More, a man who not only has principles but sticks to them, seems a timely offering for our more elastic era. Of course, you may conclude that, in his case, that virtue went too far. Here a strong cast and excellent production provide much to consider.

Hewing closely to history, More (played by Thomas Michael Hammond) has become the Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII (Roger Clark). Henry is determined to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He has several reasons for this, but the most powerful may be that she has failed to produce a male heir. (Centuries later, science would prove that a child’s sex is determined by the father. Henry should have been looking in the mirror.) The Catholic Church, of course, opposes the divorce, and Spanish officialdom, represented by its emissary Sigñor Chapuys (Edward Furst), regularly pleads Catherine’s cause. More’s conscience won’t let him support the King’s plans, despite the loyalty he demonstrates by various other actions. Nor does he speak out against them.

The principal cast includes several additional notable characters, which the cast plays with great skill and gusto: the always a bit dodgy Duke of Norfolk (Anthony Marble), More’s devoted wife Alice (Mary Stillwaggon Stewart), his daughter Margaret (Brianna Martinez) and her fiancé William Roper (Ty Lane), whose political views shift with every wind. Also, rising politician Richard Rich (Aaron McDaniel) demonstrates his convincing slipperiness, Thomas Cromwell is less admirable here than in Wolf Hall (James McMenamin), and “The Common Man,” (Kevin Isola). Isola makes the most of the array of often-comic characters he plays—More’s servant Matthew, a boatman, a publican, a juror, a jailer. His every appearance is welcome. Additional cast and production credits in my review at TheFrontRowCenter.

In general, a readiness to compromise or to achieve the King’s desired ends by whatever argument necessary characterizes Rich, Norfolk, and Cromwell, in direct contrast to More. The play challenges you to think about the role of a counselor. Is it solely to follow the leader’s dicta or is it to help a leader onto a more conciliatory and constructive path? For all his staunch refusals to speak out on the era’s great questions—the divorce and the establishment of the Church of England with the King at its head—More does have opinions about these matters. He simply believes his silence will protect him from accusations of treason. In my view, he’s splitting legal hairs too.

STNJ productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

Two Movies to Watch For

A Haunting in Venice
Kenneth Branagh’s third film outing as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is certainly loaded with stylish touches (trailer). A dark and stormy night, water everywhere. A gloomy palazzo where a Halloween party for orphans is staged. A crashing chandelier. Masked gondoliers. A psychic invited in the hope she can communicate with a former opera star’s dead daughter. Directed by Branagh and written by Michael Green.

Oh, and a houseful of suspects. Branagh has made a third try at getting right the mustache which prompted so many cackles in Murder on the Orient Express. This one is . . . interesting. Layers. No sign of the scar mentioned in Death on the Nile as the reason for growing the thing in the first place. Although the first two movies hewed closer to the original Agatha Christie novel, this story based on her novel Hallowe’en Party, has strayed off into territory of its own.

Super supporting cast—Tina Fey as mystery writer Ariadne Oliver who inveigles Poirot into investigating the medium; Kelly Reilly as the opera singer; Michelle Yeoh as the psychic; and the brilliant Camille Cottin as the housekeeper. (You may remember Cottin as the star theatrical agent in the French comedy series, Call My Agent.) And, you may recognize Jude Hill as the boy who played the lead in Branagh’s Belfast. Here he plays the 12-year-old son of a PTSD-afflicted doctor, played by Jamie Dornan, his father in Belfast too.

All you’ll miss if you wait for Haunting to stream is the scenery. A Gothic pall overlays the story, but the plot itself is a tad weak. Not mysterious enough for a mystery and not scary enough for horror. Christie’s original must have been shocking, though, because it’s the only one of her books in which a child was the murder victim. Not here. Here it’s Poirot who almost becomes the victim of apple-bobbing. Not great, but you don’t leave the theater feeling bludgeoned by sound effects, either.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 76%; audiences: 78%.

Theater Camp
While the movies about kids’ summer camps have worn their jokes thin as tissue-paper already, don’t let that discourage you from seeing this fresh take on the genre from directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman (trailer). It stars Tony award-winner Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen), Molly Gordon as loyal camp counselors and Noah Galvin as tech support, plus an ensemble of hammy, misfit campers.

The long-time owner of a theater camp in the Adirondacks (it’s Camp AdirondACTS) falls ill and is unable to carry on. Her son (Jimmy Tatro), who has no feeling for theater, kids, or camp takes over. He fancies himself a finance genius, which seems in his mind to consist of writing himself many inspiring post-its. Can the counselors save the day?

Fun and refreshing, it’s what you’d call a “small movie,” and since it’s already probably too late to see it on the Big Screen, Hulu is streaming it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences: 80%.

Fiction as “the Humanizing Act”

Author KL Cook began his writing career as an actor, unlike so many of us who always knew we wanted to be writers. When he finally began to write, he immediately recognized that his theater training was perfect for fiction writing. Perhaps it’s the practice in taking on different characters’ personas in a deep way, figuring out how each one relates and reacts to the others, learning to put oneself inside the story—being not an observer, but an “experiencer.” He’s said, “I think of writing as performance—something that ideally enchants, haunts, and persuades through the senses.” This is a strategy all writers can practice. If you were your character on stage, how would you be? relate?

From his theater background, which included studying and performing the works of Shakespeare, he found the kind of complex characters authors strive to achieve. “You can never reach the bottom of them,” he says. Hamlet, Iago—they contain mysterious contradictions. It would seem that the struggle to try to understand them is what prepares writers for creating their own story characters.

Cook’s principal character in the award-winning novel, The Girl from Charnelle, is a sixteen-year-old girl. He says that while writing the book, he sometimes felt as if he were such a girl. But he had some false starts. He wrote the whole 400- page novel in the third person, then rewrote it in first person and wasn’t satisfied with the result. The narrator had to look back at her sixteen-year-old self make some judgments and interpretations that took some of the tension out of the story. So he switched it back to third person, in what must have been a tear-your-hair-out decision! Revisions, revisions, all along the way. The message here is that even changes that require some massive amount of work like these, help you get inside your characters and understand their stories better. Whatever, it worked, and gained great acclaim.

Having made that switch myself in one novel (which has multiple point-of-view characters, only one of which changed) and one short story, I can attest that it involves much more than switching pronouns.

Writing a character very different from yourself requires seeing the world in a different way—part of the challenge and the fun of it! “The only limitation is imagination,” Cook has said. This sound like a more controversial point of view than it once was, now that we’re in the era of sensitivity readers. At the same time, I believe, as Cook has said, that “Access to other lives is why fiction is such a great humanizing art.” People different from us.

Inhabiting characters different from oneself requires giving them their due—making them neither cardboard cutout villains nor perfect specimens. You find out in my novel, Architect of Courage, that the main character has been having an affair. Worse, when he finds his lover dead, he panics and does a very human thing—he panics and runs. But how to make that situation real, not cliché? I tried to make his situation believable in the first chapters by clearly describing his wife and his lover, who were totally different in personality, appearance, and behavior. Neither was a bad person. No bitchy wife or scheming younger woman. It had to be plausible that he could, as he eventually realizes, love them both, independently.

KL Cook’s award-winning books span genres. His first book Last Call, is a collection of linked stories and a novel about the lives of a Texas panhandle family (and I should read them, because that’s where my grandparents lived!). He’s published other short story volumes, a book of poetry, and essays on fiction-writing titled The Art of Disobedience. Sounds like another worthy read. He’s an English professor and co-director of an MFA program at Iowa State University.

Weekend Movie Pick: The Lost King

You really wouldn’t have to say much more to me than “Sally Hawkins,” but when I saw previews for this film she stars in about an incident I remember well, I couldn’t wait! And it did not disappoint. For centuries, the memories of England’s King Richard III have been shaped by Shakespeare’s wonderful play, but there have been doubts . . .

He was writing during the Tudor era, and the Tudors (Henry VII) had wrested the throne from Richard, the last of the Plantagenet kings, by defeating him in battle. “A horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!” famously says the unseated king. Shakespeare had to hew the ruling dynasty’s political line here. And did.

The movie was directed by master storyteller Stephen Frears and written by him and Jeff Pope (trailer). Along with Hawkins, it stars Steve Coogan as Hawkins’s husband and Harry Lloyd as Richard III. Hawkins, as Philippa Langley, embarks on an impossible quest. Her husband has left her, her job is unbearable, and she suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which makes it hard to do much. But she sees a production of Richard III that really touches her. Was he really so bad or just misunderstood? She embarks on a quest to find out.

Introduced to the myths and mysteries surrounding Richard, she becomes consumed with a desire to find where he’s buried. Tradition holds that his body was dumped in the River Soar in Leicester, a city in England’s East Midlands. But Philippa finds scattered reference to a burial in the town’s Greyfriars Church, long since demolished.

Aiding her in her quest is King Richard himself, who appears to her (and only to her) occasionally, encouraging her on. They talk. Hawkins is perfectly cast as this tentative, but determined woman whom everyone sells short, except Richard himself. She has a brilliant way of simultaneously portraying vulnerability and strength.

Not only is it interesting, with some bureaucratic villains with all-too-familiar personalities, knowing it’s based on the true story of an amateur investigator’s triumph over hidebound historians unwilling to ask questions is quite satisfying. (You’ll loathe the university hacks.) Loved it!

(Richard en route to his new burial site, 2015.)

Great Popcorn Munching: Air

If you asked me whether I’d like a movie about a rookie basketball player’s athletic shoe endorsement saga, I’m afraid you’d just get a blank look. Then, if you said the film centers on one of the most exciting stars in any sport, ever, but he’s actually barely in it, I’d probably wander off looking for a snack. I would be wrong.

Air, the new movie directed by Ben Affleck and written by Alex Convery, is based on Nike’s 1984 effort to woo college junior Michael Jordan and his shoe endorsement away from (then) major competitors Converse and Adidas (trailer). The story will grab you because the outcome, even though you know it, is so well delivered by a top-notch cast and a wholly believable script.

Ben Affleck plays the legendary Nike founder Phil Knight, and he has some superstars on his own team, notably Matt Damon as fixer (I can’t think of a better word for it), basketball superfan, and chief risk-taker Sonny Vaccaro. Jason Bateman plays marketing innovator Rob Strasser, Chris Tucker as advisor Howard White, and Matt Maher as down-in-the-basement shoe designer and innovator Peter Moore. At the time the film is set, Nike’s a big sports company known mostly for its running shoes, trying unsuccessfully to move big into the basketball world. They need a star. Incessantly watching the films of college hoops stars and the top NBA draft picks, Vaccaro recognizes Michael Jordan for the game-changer he’s going to be. But other companies want his endorsement too.

An actor playing Michael Jordan barely appears in the film and has no lines to speak of. Instead, Vaccaro’s unconventional recruitment tactics are aimed at his mother, Deloris Jordan, in a pitch-perfect performance by Viola Davis. It’s not appreciated that he makes his pitch directly or that he end-runs Jordan’s flamboyant and foul-mouthed agent, David Falk, played by Chris Messina.

There’s humor there, too, in the marketing meetings, in Vaccaro’s manipulation of Phil Knight (knowing what good friends the two actors are, they can nevertheless argue with real heat), in how Vaccaro tells Deloris Jordan exactly what the other companies’ pitches will be and seeing how that turns out, and how she out-maneuvers all of them. In the end, the new kind of deal they struck became a game-changer for college and professional athletes alike.

Give yourself a cinematic treat, and see this film!

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ Rating 92%; audiences 98%.

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