You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Brad Mariano looks at Paul Jay’s Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, a documentary on the legendary Canadian wrestler and the notorious Montreal Screwjob incident
I’ve always been partial to the saying “it’s better to be lucky than good”, something that I think is particularly relevant to documentary films. Good, or even great, documentaries should be watched and discussed – as triumphs of research and investigation as well as filmmaking, coming together to make intelligently crafted stories and arguments in the realm of nonfiction. But to be lucky in documentary filmmaking is something else – when in the course of the filmmaking process some unexpected, unscripted and unbelievable thing happens. It might be a particularly unhinged, quotable interview subject or perhaps a revelation no-one expected. In a few cases, it’s having a cameraman in the right place at the right time to capture something that changes the meaning of the film itself. Earlier in this column Jim Poe wrote on the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter – who could have foreseen that the events at Altamont Speedway would unfold like they did? Tragically, of course, but in a way that made that event one of the most infamous incidents in pop history, and turning what was conceived as a concert film into one of the most vital cultural documents of the era.
Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows is a lucky film, capturing a behind the scenes look at likely the most notorious incident in the history of professional wrestling, where a wrestling event went off script during the main event of a pay-per-view in what is now known as the Montreal Screwjob. There’s no shortage of scandals, outrages and notoriety in wrestling’s history – sexual abuse, steroids and an alarming number of deaths of performers are just some of the controversies that mar the industry’s sordid history, yet none have quite caused the discussion and division in and out of the business like this. This film could have been a compelling talking heads documentary in the vein of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, but that aforementioned stroke of luck makes it something different altogether. It might be better to be lucky than good, but it’s even better to be lucky and good, and what Hitman Hart does with this incredible story, contextualising the event on a personal level and as a watershed event loaded with symbolism and ramifications, makes this essential viewing.
Directed by Paul Jay, the documentary was conceived as a film covering a year in the life of Bret “The Hitman” Hart, one of the most famous and celebrated professional wrestlers of all time, beloved my millions and a national icon in his native Canada and worldwide (he also had a cameo in The Simpsons 1 in its early years when such an appearance actually imparted significant cultural cachet), during both the twilight of his career and a particularly tumultuous time for the industry. Hart was contracted to Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation 2 at the time and the filmmakers were given unprecedented access behind the scenes in an otherwise notoriously opaque and PR-controlling company as well as in Hart’s own home. And in the early scenes, there are interesting anecdotes arising out of the film’s original aspirations – Hart recalls his training under his legendary father, Stu Hart, and his quite literal dungeon in what seems to Hart in hindsight as less like tough love than clear child abuse. Hart himself is a compelling figure – softly spoken, thoughtful and one who comes across as a very down-to-earth and likeable guy, someone with an integrity who takes his profession very seriously, but whose priorities lie with family. Successful and content in his field, it isn’t until well into the length of the film that we start to sense some early signs that something strange is afoot, and you can almost feel the filmmakers realise they’ve found something far more compelling that even the most ardent fan of the ridiculous world of wrestling could have imagined.
The second half of the film is where it becomes truly fascinating, as we start coming closer and closer to that fateful night in Montreal. The film expertly manages to balance compelling documentary storytelling with a lot of necessary exposition and contextualisation of the time – the situation with rival promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW), the changing culture of the industry, Hart’s role in the company as well as the bizarre contract negotiations between parties are all thoroughly outlined as the film progresses without getting bogged down in the details.
Competing storylines and themes are traced through to the culmination of events in a way that establishes why it has become so infamous. The subsequent editing of material shot well before anything goes down is so seamless that it plays as an exceptionally dense drama screenplay, so perfectly does it come to its conclusion that feels so thematically inevitable. Various themes throughout emerge – Hart’s downfall resembles not just an end of an era between an older performer and a young up-and-comer, but something deeper. A hangover from professional wrestling’s past of clear-cut moral heroes and evil villains in Saturday morning cartoon style, Hart repeatedly expresses remorse that the product’s moral fibre and integrity is slipping in favour of edgier, sexed up material; a transition between wholesome family viewing and the trashier, soap era that would define the era and abandon wrestlers as role models at the expense of morally ambiguous but sensationally popular antiheroes like Stone Cold Steve Austin and the NWO. This extends behind the scenes as well – Hart talks about loyalty and respect amongst the athletes and creative producers that in hindsight sounds naïve. That the other wrestler is Shawn Michaels – who the film posits as the epitome of everything Hart and the old school detests in front of and behind the camera – makes it especially egregious.
Particularly compelling is the character of Vince McMahon, the architect of the Screwjob and a menacing figure whose presence hangs over the film ominously, the patriarch of the wrestling world, a villain who seems like a cross between a 19th century oil man and dictator than a CEO of a billion dollar company, a cartoonish figure who just might be the most GIF-able human being on the planet. It’s not made explicit, but this fascinating hangover from pro wrestling’s traveling carnival past comes through; the operations still run by the ego of a capricious carny – none of the obvious contractual recourses Hart likely would have had are even mentioned, instead just Hart’s resignation that he was tricked and betrayed. It feels almost cruel the way the film plays with dramatic irony in the editing room in a way only a spontaneously unfolding documentary can; Hart will talk about how he views Vince as a father figure and how he trusts him implicitly – the filmmakers have no reason to doubt this when it was shot, but including it at the end is one of the many great instances of bitter foreshadowing they manage to employ.
I’ve mentioned how well the film plays as drama, and for that reason I’ve refrained from ‘spoiling’ what happened as its final act is viscerally affecting and going in blind would be rewarding. We see behind the scenes locker rooms, interviews and most excitingly, the tape recorded conversation between Hart and Vince just before they head out – all cut together as a pretty overwhelming account and reliving of the event, with far extra detail and context to help explain the shocking, confusing events that befuddled millions of viewers watching at the time. Hart’s wife berating a wall of enormous wrestlers backstage looking sheepish is one of the many priceless moments, as are the various scenes of different players trying to evade culpability and deny knowledge of what happened.
Exactly how much Hitman Hart lands will depend on the sympathy evoked for the viewer, but in addition to the circumstances of the quite personal sense of betrayal and wounded pride the film conveys, it was followed by a stark change in fortunes for both parties. It was the beginning of a very difficult few years for Hart – his brother, fellow wrestler Owen, died the following year in probably the most horrific in-ring accident in wrestling history, and Bret suffered a debilitating stroke in 2002. Vince McMahon and the WWF however entered into an unprecedented boom period at least partially derived from the incident, as Vince became a regular on-screen performer as himself in an exaggerated (but not by much) character of the evil owner of the WWF that regularly relished in the notoriety of the incident and his tyrannical hold over the livelihoods of his performers, in a bizarre meta and self-aware creative direction that has no conceivable equivalent in any other medium. Ultimately, this very real, rich series of events became the most ridiculous and entertaining storyline in a scripted television show, with good guy/bad guy dynamics that couldn’t have been written any clearer. As drama this film is great viewing, as documentary it’s fascinating and infuriating.
Conor Bateman: My knowledge of wrestling extends little beyond the Vince McMahon gifs Brad mentions and the melancholy of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but the Montreal Screwjob was a faintly familiar concept. For years I’d heard about Hitman Hart as this strangely brilliant sports (or rather sports entertainment) documentary that dealt with the biggest controversy in the history of the (then) WWF, and recently Radiolab’s episode about the event, coupled with Brad’s suggestion of it as a YHTS film, finally got me to watch the thing. It’s good, perhaps not as revelatory as expected, nor is the Screwjob itself really that shockingly calculated. That said, I like Brad’s description of the event as something almost inevitable or predictable based on the character archetypes that form over the course of the film. The idea of good versus evil is everywhere, McMahon ably finding himself as the great villain (though he’s more a quietly delusional sociopath) and Hart taking not quite the role of a hero but rather a thoroughly endearing and tragic figure. His whole life revolves around wrestling, and the push from his father seems more akin to Stockholm syndrome than genuine parental guidance. Luck is definitely a part of the filming as well, as the film is bookended by the Screwjob, but primarily focuses on Canada’s wrestler, an intimate and interesting look behind the scenes of this strange world. The divide between these two narratives isn’t entirely organically handled, and the climax does feel somewhat tacked on, but that likely has a lot to do with the film’s quick release, so there’s no dissection of the event or response to it that is satisfying. Still, Hitman Hart is an engaging and unique take on the idea of sports as entertainment, and the toll that takes on those in the spotlight, heightened here by the increasingly blurred line between reality and fiction.
Felix Hubble: Hitman Hart exists as an interesting relic of the ‘Vince McMahon is evil’ era – Beyond the Mat, which tracks the rise and fall of some potential WWF inductees as well as Mick Foley’s retirement, is the other notable documentary to come out of this movement. It’s really well constructed and the way in which they deal with the Montreal Screwjob, an incident nobody working on the documentary could have foreseen coming, is extremely impressive. As with Beyond the Mat, a lot of the film was clearly lifted by Darren Aranofsky and dropped straight into The Wrestler and it’s fascinating to trace this geneaology. At the end of the day though, I found this didn’t hit as hard as I’d hoped and probably would have played much better if I was familiar with the Montreal Screwjob in advance of watching the film or had a stronger interest in the world of ‘professional sports entertainment’ in general. In saying this, it’s really cool to see a TV movie of this quality get produced, and even cooler to see something like this (at the time of pitching it would have just been a documentary about Canada’s most famous wrestler) accrue funding from the National Film Board of Canada. I wish that there was more focus on the incident and its fallout in the wrestling community beyond its effect on Hart himself; some interviews with other members of the WWF and its fans wouldn’t have gone astray, although it’s understandable that this may have been difficult given employees vested interests in not publicly trashing their employer. On a whole, it’s definitely worth checking out as a cultural relic and is compulsory viewing for wrestling fans, but I’m not sure that it will be totally worth checking out for the passing viewer, for that there’s Beyond the Mat.