ESPN’s The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary devoted to the rise of Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls, has drawn rave reviews, garnering a whopping 97-percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite The Last Dance’s instant popularity (Twitter has had a field day with it), the critically-acclaimed series does have its detractors including one prominent director of PBS fame.
Ken Burns knows a thing or two about documentaries. He’s directed over 30 of them including sports docs Baseball (a nine-episode miniseries released in 1994) and Jackie Robinson. As a veteran of the medium, the long-time filmmaker knows what constitutes a good documentary. And in his estimation The Last Dance, a project 20 years in the making, falls woefully short. Specifically, Burns took exception to the fact that Michael Jordan’s production company, Jump 23, is credited as a partner.
“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” Burns told The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism.” The two-time Oscar nominee went on to say he would “never, never, never” agree to have a subject as a production partner, believing that Jordan’s involvement in the documentary is “the opposite direction of where we need to be going.”
While others see a riveting tale of legendary athletes competing for NBA immortality (with the occasional Vegas detour), all Burns can see is a conflict of interest. And though it’s true the series, at least through four episodes, has taken an unmistakable Jordan slant, should that really be the takeaway? Jimmy Traina of Sports Illustrated doesn’t think so.
“Why does a sports documentary have to be journalism?” Traina argued in an article published Friday. “Why can't it just be entertainment? Why does it have to be ‘good’ history? Why can't it just be a fun look back at a memorable time—which, in essence, is exactly what The Last Dance is.” While Burns’ unflinching professionalism and journalistic integrity are both admirable traits, Traina doesn’t think the subject matter of the Jordan doc warrants that level of scrutiny.
“This isn't a series about anything important or serious,” Traina continued, arguing that the stakes for The Last Dance are much lower than recent documentaries centered on Aaron Hernandez and O.J. Simpson, who were both tried and, in Hernandez’s case, convicted of first-degree murder. “It's a series about a basketball player and his team. It's sports. It's entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less. It's frivolous. It's unimportant. It's not anything to take a stance against.”
The Last Dance has drawn monster ratings, so clearly viewers haven’t been turned off by any perceived Jordan bias. It’s also worth mentioning that Burns, the series’ most vocal critic to date, has yet to tune in.