In Search of Greatness




Interviews with three great sportsmen in a film that views them as artists.

In Search of Greatness

As a director Gabe Polsky is best known as a documentarist whose films reflect his own background and interests. He himself is an American, but his parents were Soviet immigrants and Russia was central to his 2014 film Red Army just as it is again in his very latest offering, Red Penguins. Since both of these documentaries touch on hockey it is relevant to add that Polsky was a hockey player while at Yale University and the thoughtful intelligence that finds expression in his work can in part be attributed to his time as a student there.


Given that history, the character of In Search of Greatness is in keeping despite its unique nature. Polsky has described it as the most personal of his films and a quote at the outset confirms the philosophical tone that it will adopt. On the one hand, Polsky is raising a broad question here: the extent to which our education system is akin to over-management by parents of their children in that it imposes a discipline and sets formulaic goals at the cost of failing to develop original thinking and spontaneity. However, the first issue raised in the film directly concerns sportsmen - and, yes, hockey is again involved because one of the three players interviewed at length is the hockey star Wayne Gretzky, while the others are the Brazilian soccer champion Pelé and American football's Jerry Rice. Polsky wants to ascertain just what elements fostered the greatness of these three and what we learn from them suggests the need to go beyond textbook ideas in order to find an approach which, however unorthodox, is recognisably personal and right for them as individuals and therefore encourages them to give 100%.


In addition to the three sportsmen we hear from David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene and from Sir Ken Robinson who has a special interest in creativity (indeed he is particularly noted for a talk that he gave which was entitled 'Do Schools Kill Creativity?'). All five men speak very well indeed and consequently prove engaging, but I am not altogether convinced that a feature film was the most apt medium in which to express these thoughts. Ultimately Polsky is arguing that great sportsmen are artists and that belief encourages him to treat as relevant here the non-conformist strain apparent in artists working in different fields (in particular he incorporates references to the sphere of pop music by referencing such figures as David Bowie and The Beatles). But widening the scope in this way while also covering so many different points when talking to the sportsmen means that In Search of Greatness feels less like an essay movie with a shape of its own than a generalised discussion which would have worked just as well (or perhaps even better) as a live debate on television.


As is apparent, In Search of Greatness is something of a one-off and it will undoubtedly be of interest to anyone keen to ponder ideas around the matters that come up. Whether or not it fully satisfies as a film is entirely up to the individual viewer.




Featuring  Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, Pelé, David Epstein, Sir Ken Robinson.


Dir Gabe Polsky, Pro Gabe Polsky, Screenplay Gabe Polsky, Ph Svetlana Cvetko, Ed Marco Capalbo, Music Leo Birenberg.


IMG Films/Gabriel Polsky Productions-Independent.
77 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 6 May 2020. Available on digital platforms. No Cert.