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11/13/1998 11:33:07 PM

Globe & Mail Review
Jay's superb documentary

Documentary wrestles with Hitman's pain
Friday, November 13, 1998

Out-of-touch political commentators wondered where Jesse (The Body) Ventura came from to win the Minnesota governor's race this month. They should watch more television. Ventura is one of the hallowed names in the world of wrestling, a sport that is now the most popular and possibly the most profitable form of cable programming in the world.

As Paul Jay's superb documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows reveals, the battles for U.S. governors' mansions are nothing compared to the weekly TV contests of musclebound hulks representing the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and its archrival, World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Their live, main-event shows are regularly the most watched programs on U.S. cable, and have an enthusiastic following in Canada, where they air on TSN and TBS. The two wrestling bodies have gone toe to toe in a battle for ratings supremacy in the last three years, turning up the volume on the blaring rock music, making fireworks a compulsory part of each match and creating new characters who are each more evil and nasty than the ones who came before. As Ted Turner's fledgling WCW steals WWF's big names such as Hulk Hogan and Jay's moody subject Bret (The Hitman) Hart, Vince McMahon at WWF ups the ante with Jerry Springer-style production values that shame the memory of gentlemanly Whipper Billy Watson.
The kingpins of wrestling have belatedly discovered that it's the bad guys who sell, and at WWF, which now leads the ratings wars, the new heroes are the bloodless thug Stone Cold Steve Austin and the narcissistic sexpot Shawn Michaels. The Canadian Bret Hart, who carried on as much of Whipper Billy's good will as was possible in a more arrogant age, may have been the last of the WWF nice guys, and his downfall at the hands of Vince McMahon is chronicled in Wrestling with Shadows.
Jay's film, with stylish up-close camera work by Joan Hutton, is partly a biography of Calgary-born Hart, who took up the sport at the insistence of a brutal father who liked to see how much pain his offspring could endure. Since all eight sons became wrestlers, and all four daughters married wrestlers, the answer seems to be: a lot.
But the Bret Hart who rose to fame as a WWF force of good seems to be feeling the pain as the cameras roll. It's not just the rigours of wrestling's nomadic life, although Jay captures those evocatively with cold backstage shots that contrast neatly with the tarted-up glamour of the ringside antics. The 40-year-old, much-pummelled Hart is starting to feel his age, which is bad enough, but there are signs that the manipulative McMahon is growing tired of his act. When Hart is persuaded to turn evil -- rounding on the flag-waving crowds and trashing WWF's all-American values -- he suddenly becomes expendable in the entrepreneur's eyes. The end is near, and it is only a question of how The Hitman will be finished off.
It's the fakery of wrestling that paradoxically makes Jay's film so captivating. These guys are all actors, right down to McMahon, who plays himself at every WWF event. Trained to regard wrestling as make-believe fun (though it looks more like made-for-TV evil these days), we never quite know how much commitment to give Hart as he pours out his sufferings and fears. If it's an act, it's much more persuasive than anything in the ring.
Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows has a broadcast schedule that makes Canadian TV look even more balkanized than usual: tomorrow at 2 p.m. on CFCF in Montreal, at 8 p.m. on ASN in the Atlantic provinces and 9 p.m. on VTV in Vancouver; Sunday at 7 p.m. on A-Channel in Alberta; Wednesday at 10 p.m. on TVOntario's The View From Here; and Saturday, Nov. 21, at 8 p.m. on MTN in Manitoba.

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