The SmarK DVD Rant for Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows (Repost)

The SmarK DVD Rant for Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows

At one point in Paul Jay’s fantastic documentary about Bret Hart’s last days in the WWF, Bret comments that the promotion had become like a prison to him.  A prison where he had the nicest cell and where he had the run of the place thanks to his relationship to the warden, but at the end of the day he was still locked up.  That attitude kind of hangs over the whole film, as we are seeing the last vestiges of the creative spirit trampled out of Bret by a business that is clearly passing him by.

The Film

What is most amazing is what a watermark for the industry this movie truly was.  At the time it was released, during the fallout of the famous Survivor Series screwjob, the wrestling business had begun to change from heroes and villains into a kind of trash-TV tabloid come to life.  We just didn’t know how drastically things would change in the years that followed that change.  We also didn’t realize that we were watching a man in the twilight of his once-great career, although in a way I think it’s apparent from the movie.  Clearly Bret Hart in 1997 was a wrestler who was only continuing because he couldn’t get out, much like Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption.  He originally wanted to make movies, and now 20 years later he’s stuck in the middle of a political nightmare bidding war between Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon, and neither company really has a place for him any longer.  Given what happened to his brother and brother-in-law just a few years later, not to mention the endless roll call of dead wrestlers to follow, maybe getting kicked in the head by Goldberg was a blessing in disguise?  OK, that’s pretty facetious, but at least he’s alive and still doing well, which is more than can be said for dozens of other people who were faced with a similar dilemma of no longer being able to do the only thing they knew how to.

The movie itself is a perfect storm of timing and history, as filmmaker Paul Jay was doing a documentary about Bret Hart and happened to gain unprecedented backstage access to the WWF during a time when the entire company was in upheaval.  People (Bret included) were actually worried that Bischoff’s WCW was going to be able to bankrupt Vince and win the war, and there’s a kind of tense weariness around everyone backstage during the movie.  And of course we follow (entirely from Bret’s side of things) Vince’s famous 20-year contract offer and subsequent voiding of that contract because he couldn’t pay it.  The irony runs deep of course, because it was the fallout that allowed Vince to win the war and make billions of dollars by taking the company public, which would have allowed him to pay the paltry sums afforded Bret in that contract without breaking a sweat.

Regardless, real life plays out stranger than any screenplay here, as the movie builds inevitably to Bret’s showdown in Montreal with Shawn Michaels for the WWF World title, and he gets screwed out of it and sent packing to WCW.  Now, stop and think for a moment:  Given the meaningless state of the belts today, how strange is it to remember a time when that belt meant attempting to sabotage someone’s entire career over it?  If there’s one thing that’s come out of the whole thing, it’s the next generation of guys having the ridiculous “time honored tradition” mantra drilled into their heads, which at the very least has resulted in a whole crew of wrestlers who have no qualms about doing jobs, lest they suffer the same fate that Bret did.  It’s also given us years of Vince and everyone else trying to recreate that finish again to diminishing returns each time, but that’s minor.

I think the most telling and poignant moment of the movie has now come with 10 years of perspective, as Shawn and HHH are accosted by Bret’s wife Julie in the dressing room after the screwjob.  Julie knows full well (as we all do now) that they were both 100% in on the con and she tells them exactly that, leaving HHH to stand there looking at his feet like a little boy caught with his hands in the cookie jar.  It’s probably the lowest moment of his career and goes a long way to explaining his eventual mania with surpassing Ric Flair’s World title record and always being the guy in control on screen.

But lest this come across as a Clique-bashing session, Bret comes off equally bad at times here, because this is a movie that captures the human side of these cartoon characters, and human beings make mistakes.  Bret’s “innocent” interactions with Sunny seem less innocent given what we know now about his infidelities from his autobiography, for instance.  Even worse, his dogged determination to keep working for a business he clearly hates, which drives a wedge between himself and Julie right there on screen.  She’s clearly begging him to step away from the business, but he’s the parolee who just can’t adjust to life on the outside.  Seeing his insistence on being the hero and clinging to a dying ideal of the wrestling business almost becomes an allegory for the business itself.  Watching it these days, it’s strange to think of how anyone could possibly have leverage against the WWE machine the way that Bret does here, and so this movie ends up being as much a time capsule of the end of an era for pro wrestling as much as the end of an era for Bret Hart.  It’s still an endlessly fascinating piece that is tragic on many levels when you take into account the fates of those who circled around Bret at this point, and is must-see viewing for any wrestling fan as well.

(Rating:  *****)

Video & Audio

This was a made-for-TV documentary shot mostly on handheld cameras, and it shows.  It’s presented in the original full-screen aspect ratio and the picture looks good, but shows the age of the material and the original limitations.  Ditto for the included Owen Hart documentary on the second disc.  It is what it is, basically.  The new interviews with Bret Hart and Paul Jay are presented in anamorphic widescreen, however.

(Rating:  **1/2)

Bonus Features

The major feature is the “Life and Death of Owen Hart” piece from A&E’s Biography, also directed by Paul Jay.  It’s a nice, but infinitely sadder, bonus to have with the set.  Plus you get a 22-minute interview with Bret Hart about how things stand 10 years later, and one with Paul Jay as well.  Although the Jay one turns into an advertisement for “The Real News”, his current website.

(Rating:  ****)

The Pulse:

Still a brilliant piece of moviemaking, and only given serious competition by The Wrestler as far as showing one man’s tragic fall from the heights of wrestling.

Buy a copy at if you don’t already own one.

Highest recommendation!

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