Plimpton!

2011, Movie, NR, 87 mins

Review

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It's easy to smile at an assessment of George Plimpton (1927-2003) as a “renaissance man” given the understatement of that remark -- the fact that Plimpton "did" just about everything at one point or another in his life. At once a journalist, literary and social critic, supporting player in Hollywood movies, television pundit, publisher of the Paris Review quarterly, and an Upper East Side bon vivant and raconteur, Plimpton attained pop-culture recognition via his chameleon-like series of attempts to try out various extreme occupations, such as quarterback for the Detroit Lions, goalie for the Boston Bruins, photographer of Playboy centerfolds, and high-wire trapeze artist with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. His experiences in these trades were far more than a gimmick: He wrote about them from the inside, with dispassionate insight and wit, and his articles laid the foundation for New Journalism, one of the most historically important and unique movements in all of American literature.

The fact that a documentary profile of Plimpton hasn’t already been produced might seem surprising given the wild vicissitudes of his life, but the more one thinks about it, the more sense this makes: He himself was a slippery and elusive figure, a cipher who much preferred observing to being observed, and it would take a preternaturally gifted filmmaker to pin down the shadowy identity behind the many facades.

That's one of the central problems of Plimpton! , co-directors Luke Poling and Tom Bean's biographical documentary about the man -- and the main issue that prevents the movie from achieving anything close to greatness. At first glance, it seems to be done with workmanlike efficiency, as contributors such as James Lipton, Peter Matthiessen, and (very briefly) Hugh Hefner turn up for droll commentary on Plimpton's life and times. But as it rolls forward, you grow increasingly conscious of the fact that the documentary itself has no dramatic structure, no interpretation of Plimpton; it's merely a series of pop-psychoanalytic stabs in the dark on his identity and motivations. Some of this, such as the notion that his occupational drifting grew out of a complex fear of paternal dissatisfaction, is fascinating. But in order for the tropes to stick, they need to be mentioned more than once; there need to be two or three central ideas at the movie's core, and the directors need to find a way to lay them down as a thematic foundation and then gradually build on them, while broadening and deepening our understanding of the subject. That doesn't happen.

What we do get is moderately enjoyable -- light, breezy, and undemanding to sit through. It's a casual valentine to Plimpton that's about as entertaining and enlightening as reading one of his literary pieces, watching one of his early-’70s television specials, or reading an Encyclopedia Britannica capsule summary of him. The documentary incorporates several scintillating quotes about the subject (particularly from his first wife, Freddy Espy), and makes a solid case for the personal and professional connection between George Plimpton and one of his key mentors and literary predecessors, Ernest "Papa" Hemingway. But the film often focuses on aspects of Plimpton's life that seem tangential to the subject -- such as his campaigning for Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and his inadvertent presence in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen during Kennedy's assassination. And the directors follow these detours while skimming or bounding over other developments in Plimpton's life. For instance, the filmmakers fail to incorporate even a mention of Alex March's 1968 movie Paper Lion (let alone clips from it or commentary by star Alan Alda), which comically recreates Plimpton’s experiences playing football with the Detroit Lions. Nor are there references to Plimpton's clever Alastair Cook parodies on Disney's Mouseterpiece Theatre in the early-to-mid ’80s. Although, as indicated, Hefner does appear for about two seconds, there is no discussion of Plimpton's Playboy experiences behind the camera, which would make great film material, challenging as it is to imagine the subject doing this work. Most unforgivable are the movie's failure to give us a sense of Plimpton's literary catalogue above and beyond two or three of his more than 30 books, and the fact that Plimpton's contributions to the canon of journalism get such short shrift here; the magnificent author Gay Talese turns up, but how could the directors fail to capture his insights into how Plimpton dramatically shaped his own participatory journalism? The absence from the screen of Tom Wolfe -- another charter member of the New Journalism school -- is baffling; he gets a thank you in the production notes of the film, but that's it.

Bean and Poling have written that they landed enough material for at least an 18-hour biographical profile of Plimpton; instead, they’ve given us a cursory overview that barely clocks in at 87 minutes. The need for a longer and deeper movie is clear given the depth and breadth of Plimpton's life, but even within the length of a standard feature film, the documentary could give us a stronger and more cohesive structure and a better-gauged array of clips to support it. As such, the film constitutes a significant misfire. leave a comment --Nathan Southern

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