The star of Jason Hehir’s documentary series “The Last Dance” isn’t Michael Jordan so much as his charisma, which seems at times to move independent of him. The nonfiction series, which was a sensation on ESPN this past spring ahead of its bow on Netflix this weekend, is flawed as documentary in all but one way: It provides a remarkable testament to the power of Jordan’s celebrity, a power morphed but not undimmed by time. His talent on the basketball court, massive though it is, may indeed come second to the sheer force of his personality.
The two were, naturally, linked — Jordan’s gameplay grew in power over time through the singlemindedness of his focus. And his celebrity derived from his gameplay with his Chicago Bulls, though that wasn’t the only thing. Among the more compelling aspects of “The Last Dance” is its use of contemporaneous media from the 1990s to show us exactly how mad the attention around Jordan could become. Press conferences were zoo-like affairs with Jordan the subject of the gawking; news anchors read granular updates on his career and mood with a tone of astonishment that so many headlines can emanate from from one man. Jordan’s tenor throughout historical footage is one of rigorous emotional control, just loose enough to allow the viewer to see that he was indeed feeling things beneath the reserve. If his gameplay was dominant, his public self off-court was elusive, and allusive, gesturing at a rich emotional life to which mere spectators would never get access.
“The Last Dance” was criticized, justly, for the nature of its access to Jordan in the present day; it’s less a journalistic examination of the Jordan phenomenon than a restricted view of the Jordan that Jordan himself would like you to see. It’s not that certain bits of Jordaniana aren’t touched on — the documentary doesn’t outright ignore his passion for gambling — but they tend to always land in a place that shows you Jordan in his best light. In this regard, “The Last Dance” is frustrating but enlightening in its own way. Jordan, in the present day, remembers feuds and disputes vividly, particularly with the media. Regarding one tell-all book, he notes airily that controversy is a necessary aspect of selling books (which, while true, is a deflection of the book’s claims whose lack of substance the series lets stand); regarding a scathing Sports Illustrated cover mocking Jordan’s time playing baseball, Jordan’s critique is that the magazine never asked to hear his side.
It’s a fair note. But his side, perhaps, would have swamped the story — as it does here. Jordan is the hub of “The Last Dance,” and everything it has to say about the efforts of a team in the crowded world of the 1990s NBA ultimately flows through him. (To wit: Dennis Rodman, a compelling figure in his own right, is deployed here ultimately as the Goofus to Jordan’s Gallant, the expressive counterpoint to Jordan’s diligence.) Jordan, slowed by age but only a beat, defines the story “The Last Dance” tells with such ease one doesn’t consistently realize it’s happening in the moment; his candor, still, seems freighted with what he is actively choosing not to say, so we hang on each word.
Part of his silence is especially notable: Jordan has made the choice not to engage on topics in the news, which is itself a political choice. Watching the series now, in an era in which athletes are engaged in protest at the highest levels of sport, provides another striking counterpoint: Jordan speaks, ultimately, with such care that the only topic we end up hearing him on is himself. It’s a self-referential celebrity of the sort that thrived in an era when we were not used to constant access to the stars, when Jordan alighting from Mount Olympus to engage with the public was an astounding, major event. In the end, Jordan seems not merely to be addressing his old gameplay triumphs, watching games back on the iPad during “The Last Dance” and reminiscing, but to be sharing what it felt like to be the last of something — the most major, and final, star to exist in a media environment where the star got to make the rules.