We poor starved racing fans are so eager for mainstream coverage of our sport that we grasp eagerly at whatever crumbs the media want to throw us. Occasional coverage on live TV? Thank you! An HBO series on life at the racetrack? Oh, you are too kind. A documentary by the Worldwide Leader in Sports? Oh, no, really, it’s too much.
Except that this time, it wasn’t. Watching the Charismatic documentary last night, I came away hungry.
The Charismatic/Chris Antley story is a combination of the compelling and the cliché. The cheap claimer makes good, the fallen finds salvation in sport, the fairy tale almost comes true…but not quite. The romance of racing, and its exoticism relative to other sports, can sometimes rescue a story from slipping into well-worn tracks, but somehow, the conflict and vitality inherent in this story didn’t make it on to the screen.
To be fair, the makers of the documentary were up against it: one of the stars of their movie is dead, and the other can’t talk. Bob Lewis passed away in 2006. D. Wayne Lukas is absent. Not a single one of the story’s primary characters appeared in anything except old footage. It’s tough to build drama from that.
But the style of the documentary felt static: commentators were seated behind tables or in chairs, stationary; interspersed landscape shots were absent of activity or movement. Even the racing shots seemed somehow drained of their energy.
Several sequences relieved the flatness: the shot of Jim McKay talking to and about Antley after the Preakness, essentially imploring the jockey not to fall victim again to this addiction. “I won’t,” promised Antley, captured on television looking reverently up at the sportscaster. The promise of that moment, with Antley at the pinnacle of his career, is devastating as we watch with retrospective knowledge of how the story ends.
The interviews with Natalie Jowett Antley, pregnant with Antley’s child at the time of his death, could easily have fallen into schmaltzy melodrama, but her quiet, almost placid demeanor belied an emotional intensity, kept in check but nonetheless powerfully moving.
And Drew Mollica, Antley’s friend and one-time agent, offered brash, shrewd assessments, infused with regretful affection, of his former client. His were welcome appearances among the moody landscape shots and contemplative recollections.
Noteworthy among the clunky moments were shots of a garbage truck emptying trash outside Antley’s house as the sequence about his death began (morbidly and coarsely symbolic? or something I’ve missed entirely?) and the gratuitously self-promotional insert of SportsCenter announcing Antley’s death.
This is a complex story, filled with people that inspire ambivalence, imbued with deception and delusion and disappointment. It can be heart-breaking, evoking wistfulness and a sense of what might have been, if only…if only.
If only Antley had conquered his addiction. If only he’d ridden the horse differently in the Belmont. If only Charismatic hadn’t broken down.
Oh, right…Charismatic, for whom the movie is named. The bookend shots of a Bluegrass breeding farm that open and close the movie are meant, I suppose, to remind us that, after all, this was a movie about the horse.
It’s too bad he can’t talk.