An example of long-term documentary filmmaking paying off in ways few could have anticipated, “Linsanity” energetically recounts Jeremy Lin’s astonishing rise to NBA stardom. Capturing the excitement that erupted when the 23-year-old point guard galvanized the New York Knicks and became a global icon of Asian-American progress, Evan Jackson Leong’s film makes the most of its superior access and exciting basketball footage, overcoming repetitive stretches by sheer dint of a tremendous underdog story. Docu’s strong but wholly appropriate Christian overtones may alienate some fans, but this is rousing fare destined for theatrical bookings and robust sports-cabler play.
The first athlete of Chinese/Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA, Lin became an international sports and media sensation when he led the hapless Knicks to a seven-game winning streak in February 2012 that helped propel them into the playoffs. Leong, who had already been filming Lin and his Palo Alto, Calif.-based family for some time, provides an exhaustive sense of the young man’s years of practice and dedication, as well as the various challenges he faced playing for Harvard U., the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets before he was picked up by the Knicks. (Lin returned to the Rockets last summer on a three-year contract.)
The list of disappointments includes an ankle injury that nearly sidelined him in high school, erratic performance on the court, and numerous stints in the NBA’s development league, from which few stars typically emerge. But the phenomenon known as “Linsanity” swiftly demonstrated Lin’s impressive mental resilience and his quicksilver ability to turn setbacks into opportunities, to surprise scouts, coaches and teammates with athletic abilities that didn’t always announce themselves right away.
Whatever his awareness of these talents, the 6-foot-3 star is presented here as a likably grounded, unpretentious guy who speaks in a low drone, claims to hate the spotlight, and remains closely involved with church and family. Much is made of his well-known habit of sleeping on his brother’s and teammates’ couches, a habit he fell into at a time when it seemed inevitable the Knicks were going to cut him.
Like his close friends and relatives, Lin is quick to attribute his success to his Christian beliefs, and if this strikes more cynical viewers as naive, the sincerity of his professions of faith (“God gives and takes away”) serve only to make his ups and downs that much more compelling. Leong, who previously helmed the missionary-focused docu “1040: Christianity in the New Asia,” more or less embraces his subject’s views without coming off as too pushy or proselytizing. Still, there are enough oncamera testimonials here to render unnecessary the voiceover narration by Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost,” “Hawaii Five-0”), which adds yet more levels of inspirational earnestness to an already uplifting narrative.
As Lin’s stellar performances piled up one after another, inspiring general awe and widespread pride among Asian-Americans, there followed a backlash from players and other observers who claimed Lin’s success and attention were due entirely to his ethnicity. This section yields the docu’s juiciest material; covered at length here is an episode in which Kobe Bryant verbally slighted the player prior to a Knicks-Lakers game, initiating a social-media frenzy and a classy response from Lin on and off the court.
The explosion of puns, quips and headlines in the media (“Amasian!” screamed the New York Post) took an unfortunate turn when ESPN anchor Max Bretos at one point dropped the phrase “chink in the armor,” kicking off a painfully necessary conversation about racial slurs, deliberate or unintentional, targeting the Asian-American community. As Lin makes clear at one point, he’s no stranger to such insults, having endured many even from fellow Harvard students watching in the bleachers.
Focusing primarily on Lin’s meteoric rise, the docu doesn’t get into the details of how Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni was replaced midyear by Mike Woodson, whose offensive scheme didn’t showcase Lin’s talents as well, or the knee injury that ended his season. Yet if “Linsanity” at times comes off as overly admiring and protective of its subject (as well as a bit prone to hammering the same points at 88 minutes), the film’s positioning of Lin as an exceptional figure on two cultural fronts, race and religion, largely justifies its celebratory approach.
So does the ample footage of Lin in action; fluidly edited by Greg Louie and backed by an adrenaline-pumping score by the Newton Brothers, the shots of Lin dunking, passing off to teammates for easy baskets, slipping past opponents and making three-pointers never seem to get old.