Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sundance ’12: The Other Dream Team

In the late 1930’s, Lithuania twice won the European basketball championship. In 1940, it was invaded and subjugated by the Soviet Union. Yet, the tiny Baltic country’s proud sporting tradition helped sustain it during those painful decades, culminating in the newly free Lithuania’s Olympic victory over the Russian-Unified team in 1992. The incredible history of the Lithuania’s break from the Soviet Union and the game that announced their independence to the world is told in Marius Markevicius’s stirring documentary The Other Dream Team (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

America’s 1988 Olympic loss to the Soviets was the impetus for the creation of the so-called “Dream Team” of NBA all-stars, including Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. However, four of the Soviet team’s starters were actually Lithuania. In fact, warriors like Arvydas Sabonis and Šarunas Marčiulionis had dramatically mixed emotions about their 1988 gold. They were proud of their accomplishments, but it was not the anthem they wanted to hear on the medal stand.

Four years later, much had changed. Sabonis and his colleagues were finally allowed to play in the NBA as a reward for their Olympic glory. At great risk, Lithuania had asserted its independence and held out against invading Soviet forces. The freshly sovereign country could field one of the best basketball teams in the world but had insufficient resources to send them to Barcelona. However, help would come from an unexpected source: the Grateful Dead.

Dream gives roughly equal time to sports and history, but each part is equally uplifting and informative. Indeed, people often forget it was Nobel Peace Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev who sent the tanks into Vilnius. In fact, independence leader Vytautas Landsbergis is just as much a protagonist as Sabonis and his teammates.

Just about all the starters from the 1992 team are heard from in great length throughout Team and each has their share of telling anecdotes. As is so often the case with survivors’ reminiscences of the Communist era, they are often simultaneously funny and sad. Yet, simply considered as a sports doc, Dream is one of the best in years. Even basketball fans who think they know the players well will learn something new here.

This is a great story, smartly constructed with rich details and full historical context. The many Grateful Dead tunes included in the soundtrack are also a nice bonus. For those looking for a movie that celebrates the spirit of freedom, Dream will get you choked-up, in a good way. Legitimately inspiring and hugely entertaining, it is one of two truly standout documentaries at Sundance this year (along with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry). Enthusiastically recommended, it screens again today (1/25) and Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as well as this Friday (1/27) in Salt Lake.