I first heard of Jeremy Lin during his playing days in college at Harvard. As a fairweather fan of college basketball (really, only following my alma mater), I thought Lin was a notable story but not particularly important. Still, being the best player on a low-level collegiate team who didn’t have much NBA hype built doesn’t typically garner any spotlight, so the limited amount of attention he did receive was pretty remarkable. This, of course, was magnified by a million over a two-week span in February 2012 when Lin went from the back of the bench to the starting lineup of the New York Knicks and led the struggling team on a winning streak while setting some all-time records for his play. Linsanity is a new documentary that follows the life and journey of this remarkable sports figure.
Though a film could certainly be made about the centralized timespan that this film takes its title, Linsanity isn’t focused much on it alone — the fact that these events aren’t portrayed in the film until around the hour mark is pretty indicative of this. Certainly, the focus of the film is a broader look at Jeremy Lin’s life, roots, and journey, but it dawned on me pretty late in the film just how early on the filmmakers jumped into this story. It’s pretty clear that director Evan Leong wasn’t merely interested in his subject because of the heightened media presence following Lin’s historic run, and that’s to the film’s strength. In one of the DVD’s special features, Leong describes the process starting two full years before “Linsanity” even broke. Strangely, Linsanity probably isn’t a film that gets any attention without “Linsanity,” and its important that the filmmaker used these events as the climax, not the jumping off point.
This also probably contributes to Linsanity avoiding one of my biggest pet peeves in sports profile documentaries: overselling the talented-but-flawed figure. Some films only show the viewer the jaw-dropping highlights while forgetting or trivializing the lowlights. I often get the feeling that a viewer without knowledge of the greater sports context would be confused why the subject isn’t a bigger star or would outright villainize the owners, coaches and general managers who didn’t give our new favorite player any chance to succeed. This may be because Linsanity’s opening goal wasn’t to showcase Lin as a solely great player, but a limited one who had to work extra hard to get where he is today. In the film’s second act, when Lin goes from organization to organization without finding much playing time or success, there is never the instinct to point at certain key figures for blame. Linsanity is fairly honest about Lin’s progression as a professional athlete, not shying away from just how close he was from being dropped by the Knicks just days before his rapid rise.
Along with lots of great basketball footage, both first-hand and archival, the film spends a lot of time with Jeremy Lin to give us his personal insights through the journey. Lin really isn’t the most charismatic personality, but he is candid and intelligent and overall quite likeable — more than able to carry his own documentary. At certain points in his development, such as when he recounts the first time he was waived by a team (the hometown team he cheered for as a kid, no less), he doesn’t hide his frustration or cover it up by being goofy or overly optimistic. He’s never exactly antagonistic, but just fiery enough to make an interesting interview.
Linsanity is most successful in its incredible access to Lin’s life and career and when it tries to keep the story simple and small, but has a bit of trouble trying to capture the big picture. This is especially seen in the film’s look at the racial side of Lin’s story, which has inevitably and perhaps unfortunately become a big part of the story. There are a few moments when the film seems to start to go in this particular direction, but they are scattered throughout and never built to any sort of real discussion. Near the end of the film, during the depiction of the “Linsanity” era, it will throw on the infamous ESPN clip when a racially insensitive idiom was used or when a local broadcaster made an offhanded joke about Lin’s slanted eyes when discussing his “court vision,” but it mostly leaves them at face value. In one particularly provocative moment, Lin himself says that if he was black he would have been offered scholarships to Division 1 colleges — this, of course, isn’t something he was told, but personal conjecture. It may have been difficult for this particular film, with its fairly personal scope, to have gone down this racial rabbit hole, but I can’t help but feel a missed opportunity to explore this particularly fascinating part of the story a little deeper, especially given Lin’s access and the Asian-American presence in the director’s chair.
The DVD release of Linsanity includes two short featurettes: a video that was made as the introduction for the film’s Kickstarter campaign and a behind-the-scenes interview with Lin on his thoughts on the film.