Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself – Review



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Participatory journalism. It’s a phrase I was unfamiliar with until I sat down to watch the American Masters presentation of the 2013 documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself. Now knowing what this type of journalism entails, it makes me wonder if I picked the wrong career path.

It seems so novel of an idea. To actually participate in an activity and then writing about said activity. Even better is being an amateur and allowing your written prose to tell the story of an average Joe with a bunch of pros.

For those who are well-versed in everything Plimpton, Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s documentary will seem pretty perfunctory. No big reveals are made in this cursory exploration of the famed journalist’s life. The directing team hit most of the high points but also glosses over some finer details (like his experiences as a tank driver during the Second World War).

Told in chronological fashion, we observe that Plimpton was far from a strong student. A descendant in a family of renowned WASPs, from fields that included corporate law and botany, Plimpton would struggle in school getting “Cs, Ds, and a few Es.” Attending Harvard and later Cambridge, Plimpton would find his voice in the form of writing. He would establish himself as the first editor in chief of The Paris Review, a quarterly literary journal that included short fiction and non-fiction from the likes of Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett and was responsible for discovering Terry Southern who, besides his written fiction, would craft some memorable dialogue for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Plimpton didn’t use the publication as an outlet for his own stories, but he did create the landmark “Writers at Work” series where he would interview the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, and Ralph Ellison, among others. It would be his interview with Hemingway where Plimpton would tap into something that would become customary and that was reporting from a participatory tone instead of a reactionary one. He would apply this to his feats of sporting fancy when he worked for Sports Illustrated.

Tom Bean and Luke Poling spent the better part of five years culling through archival footage to piece together Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself and the persistence shows with the final product. The 90-minute documentary includes a posthumous narration by the man himself, culled from hundreds of hours of audio, plus a plethora of personal and candid photos of George Plimpton, home movies and vintage footage shot while the journalist was sparring with boxing great Archie Moore, playing third-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions (which he would recall in his book Paper Lion), and as a high-wire trapeze artist. He would also pitch in a MLB exhibition game against both AL and NL teams, managed by Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, respectively, and he would try his hand at hockey and basketball as well.

Outside of the sporting arena he would act in a western with John Wayne (Rio Bravo) and try his luck in Las Vegas. But he wasn’t playing Blackjack. Instead, he was a stand-up comedian at Caesar’s Palace. And he did this all in the name of journalism. While fellow journalist Gay Talese, who is one of the featured interviewees in documentary, would liken Plimpton to that of a “dilettante,” I’d counter that Plimpton engaged in such a different array of activities so he could better understand his subjects. For instance, it’s one thing to watch a football game and say that you can do that, it’s another to actually go through the rigmarole the game entails – offseason conditioning, practice, et al.   

Apart from his amateur feats, a section of the documentary is devoted to Plimpton’s relationship with Senator Robert Kennedy. This includes a rundown of Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Plimpton was present. The section seems out of place in the documentary, but the two men were close personal friends in their college days at Harvard. Coincidentally, Plimpton’s father was appointed by John F. Kennedy as U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations (1961-1965).

For those that already know quite a bit about George Plimpton, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself won’t be a revelation. Those who only Plimpton as the psychologist that gets riled up by Matt Damon’s Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting, this documentary will serve as an excellent gateway to learning about a man who would do nearly anything for the sake of journalism.

Director(s): Tom Bean and Luke Poling
Writer(s): Tom Bean and Luke Poling
Notable Cast: George Plimpton, Ken Burns, Hugh Hefner, Robert Kennedy Jr, James Lipton, Gay Talese, James Salter, Jay McInerney