Sundance 2012: THE OTHER DREAM TEAM Review

     January 30, 2012

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There is a world beyond American sports.  We would just prefer not to acknowledge it.  That’s why what we call “soccer” the rest of the world calls “football” and what we call “football” is played mostly with hands.  The Other Dream Team is an important sports story that had nothing to do with us, but shows a compelling drama far beyond our traditional winner-loser/rivalry dynamic.  Sports can serve as an important symbol of competition and reconciliation between major powers.  The Other Dream Team does an effective job of tying a popular sport to the world-changing events, but sometimes lets the historical events overpower the athletic events.

In 1992, the US put together “The Dream Team”, an Olympic team fielded by the top professional basketball players of the day including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and other legendary athletes.  That’s what we heard about in 1992.  But a more compelling and historically relevant game was playing out between Lithuania and Russia.  While the rest of the world saw a team in tie-dye off-court outfits and who were sponsored by The Grateful Dead, Lithuania had finally broken free of the USSR and a victory at the Olympics would further prove the nation’s independence.

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The Other Dream Team does a wonderful job of showing how Lithuania had the USSR’s top basketball stars, but these players would have been extraordinary in any country.  They dominated European hoops, but all of their victories were seen as Soviet rather than Lithuanian.  It was a constant fight for national identity off the court, and it shows how basketball became more than a game for players like Valdemaras Chomičius, Arvydas Sabonis, and Šarūnas Marčiulionis.  It wasn’t simply an awareness of current events.  When your country has you monitored by KGB agents when you’re on a world tour, then your country has recognized that it’s not just a game.

The movie should be about the players and their journey, but when the story pulls away to talk about the historical events, the film becomes prosaic and pedantic.  It’s important to familiarize the audience with the history, but the film takes too much time away from the players and instead focuses on historical figures and file footage of what was happening off the court.  These moments should have been abbreviated with more time given to the players talking about how they personally experience the upheaval and independence of their country.  The Other Dream Team is about telling a larger story through a smaller one, and both the macro and micro narratives are diminished when we leave the players behind.

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When we’re on the court is when The Other Dream Team is at its best.  Sports inherently have the drama of competition, but the film goes to larger question of what makes a champion.  Is it really an honor to win if the world claims it as a victory for your oppressor rather than your nation?  How much can your talent be recognized when your occupying power stops you from challenging players across the globe?  Bringing together the fight for national identity and personal identity is where The Other Dream Team strikes the perfect balance and mixes it with fun moments like the involvement of The Grateful Dead (who were huge basketball fans) and how much the Lithuanians enjoyed playing against Team USA.

As the field of sports reporting has expanded and there are more ways to bring the wide world of sports across various mediums, the US has slowly begun to realize that there were other international sports dramas beyond Cool Runnings.  The 30 for 30 series has done a terrific job of branching out beyond the US (The Two Escobars is a must-see), and The Other Dream Team would be at home in that series.  The film doesn’t try to tear down our Dream Team, but it’s a nice reminder that while we may have had the best team, Lithuania had the most important one.

Rating: B

For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here.   Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

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