TV Review: ESPN’s ‘The ’85 Bears’

With:
Narrator: Vince Vaughn

For a documentary about a team of colorful characters that decimated the rest of the NFL, “The ’85 Bears” is surprisingly sentimental, in places even maudlin. Much of that has to do with the tragedies and illnesses that have befallen the group, including the untimely death of star Walter Payton, Dave Duerson’s suicide (related to brain damage suffered as a player), quarterback Jim McMahon’s struggles with early-onset dementia, and the deteriorating health of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Given all that, this “30 for 30” production toes a delicate line, celebrating the Bears’ ebullient heyday while acknowledging its conflicted present.

Directed by Jason Hehir, narrated by exec producer Vince Vaughn and timed to the 30th anniversary of Chicago’s only Super Bowl victory, the story begins with the Bears defense taking the extraordinary step of writing to owner George Halas, urging him to retain the gruff, irascible Ryan despite firing the team’s head coach. Enter the equally tough Mike Ditka, who, despite the Bears’ success was essentially barred from attending defensive meetings, with Ryan operating what amounted to his own mini-fiefdom within the locker room.

Installing what came to be known as the 46 Defense, which aggressively crowds the line of scrimmage, Chicago overwhelmed opponents on that side of the ball (the mere highlights of those crushing hits are teeth-rattling), and gradually improved on offense, adding the flamboyant McMahon to a unit that already boasted Payton, who had toiled for years with little playoff success to show for his impressive talent.

Much of the reminiscing by players and coaches is great fun, perhaps especially from defensive lineman Steve McMichael (bearer of the nickname “Mongo,” inspired by “Blazing Saddles”), who someone should seriously consider giving his own late-night talk show.

As described, the Bears not only outplayed rivals but out-partied them as well. That included a dizzying level of carousing in New Orleans leading up to the Super Bowl, right before they went out and demolished the New England Patriots; and a prescient and lucrative marketing apparatus, which kicked into high gear when Ditka inserted William “The Refrigerator” Perry into the backfield against San Francisco and let him carry the ball, turning the massive lineman into an overnight sensation and “publicity monster.”

The good vibrations, though – and even the insider-ish material, from Payton’s wounded feelings over being reduced to decoy status in the championship game, to sniping about Ditka signing Doug Flutie to replace an injured McMahon – is frequently overshadowed by the more sobering elements. Perhaps foremost, a team that reveled in its punishing approach to the game paid a formidable price, leaving even those players who currently seem fine concerned about the lingering effects of all those concussions and collisions.

For anyone who remembers how dominant the Bears were for a stretch, it’s also remarkable to realize they didn’t repeat as champions – victimized, as many of the players suggest, by a combination of injuries and clashing egos, the latter prompting Ryan to depart for a head-coaching gig in Philadelphia. Seeing Ryan now, unable to walk after a series of illnesses, adds further perspective, while reuniting him with Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary – who is overcome with emotion reading a letter from his old coach – is a brazen but nonetheless effective ploy to tug at the heartstrings.

In a sense, “The ’85 Bears” weaves together three primary threads: the building of a champion; the difficulty sustaining that prosperity under the glare of the media lights; and the consequences of a career in the brutal sport known as football, three decades removed from these players’ crowning glory. That is, admittedly, a lot of turf to cover, but before it’s over, Singletary might not be the only one wiping away a few tears.

TV Review: ESPN's 'The '85 Bears'

(Documentary; ESPN, Thurs. Feb. 4, 9 p.m. ET)

Production: Produced by JMH Films and Wild West Films.

Crew: Executive producers, Peter Billingsley, Jason Hehir, Victoria Vaughn, Vince Vaughn; producers, Nick Eisenberg, Lacee Johnson; director, Hehir; camera, Thomas Stukas; editors, Brad Buckwalter, Andrew Romero, Karl Woitach; music, Dave Porter. 120 MIN.

Cast: Narrator: Vince Vaughn

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