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12/25/1998 12:33:46 PM

Newsday review
one whale of a tale.

GLUED TO THE TUBE / A Man Grapples With `The
Business' / A wrestler is caught in the battle of his life;
loyalty is pinned

( Newsday )

GLUED TO THE TUBE / A Man Grapples With `The Business' / A
wrestler is caught in the battle of his life; loyalty is pinned

Diane Werts. E-mail Diane Werts at [email protected]

BRET HART IS a stockbroker. Bret Hart is an insurance salesman. Bret
Hart is a computer expert.
All right, all right, Bret Hart is actually a professional wrestler.
But he could well be any of the above, once you've seen this
weekend's fine A&E; film "HITMAN HART, wrestling with shadows" (Sunday at
9 p.m.) - a candid year-in-the-life documentary that is (don't faint)
every bit as artfully smart as its peculiarly capitalized title.
The picture that emerges is that of The Corporate Everyman, working
to the best of his ability, doing exactly what the business tells him
to, for the good of the business, and, in the end, being punished for it
- used up and spit out, taking the (literal) fall for the boss, and
getting personally betrayed as a final fare-thee-well. There's promoter
Vince McMahon, smugly proclaiming, "I have no sympathy for Bret
whatsover. None. I have no sympathy for someone not doing the right
thing for the business that made him."
Yes, it's about wrestling, and you'll understand the business -
make that The Business - better than ever. But it's also about being
hot, and not; about generational tides (Hart is now 41); about standing
up for what you believe, and about differences in "creative direction."
Wrestling? Creative? You betcha. "There is an art to wrestling,"
Hart explains early on, "but people never come up and say, `You're a
hell of an actor.' They always come up and just go, `You're a phony.' "
You won't believe that for a second after "HITMAN HART." Sure, the
guys get together before the match and determine what'll happen. But
how will it happen? Who'll do what, and when? And, most important, what
will those events say about The Character?
That's exactly what Hitman Hart is, as this two-hour film captures
during the last year of Hart's reign in McMahon's World Wresting
Federation. Hart is now with Ted Turner's rival World Championship
Wrestling organization (he's on WCW's Nassau Coliseum card Dec. 29); how
and why he made the personal and professional jump are the heart of this
amazing drama.
Talk about psychology. It isn't just Hart's near-mythic struggle
with McMahon, it goes right back to his raising, in Calgary, Alberta,
one of eight sons of wrestling scion Stu Hart, whose basement was not so
fondly known as The Dungeon for all the painful wrestling moves
demonstrated there. Stu's wife could do without the game, but all her
sons are in it - and all four daughters married wrestlers (including
longtime Hart partners Jim Neidhart and the British Bulldog). Up from
The Dungeon came hardly-phony screams (Hart's got some on audio tape
that'll chill your bones) and Dad yelling, "Have some discipline." Yeah,
while your eyeballs turn blood-red and your veins bulge. "That was the
measure of a man," remembers brother Keith. "Just to see who would
Not Bret, as Vince McMahon would learn 30 years later. Of course, it
was McMahon's company that bought Stu Hart's wrestling territory and
showcased Bret in a 14-year WWF career that "gave me the stage to work
on and the opportunity to show everybody that I was the best" - not a
small matter to a man still strugging to prove to Stu a thing or two
about his "measure." Bret Hart gave McMahon the kind of loyalty his
tight family valued, and the WWF gave Hart the kind of fame that gets
you turned into an animated "Simpsons" character.
But wrestling, it turns out, "is far more real than people think,"
as Hart says in his brooding narration of this Canadian film. This
becomes clearer than glass in Hart's stone-cold showdown with McMahon
about his exit from the WWF, a firm that first signs him to a 20-year
contract, then just months later asks him to tear the whole thing up and
get out. Hart is concerned about his "Hitman character" remaining a hero
- "I don't think there are any good guys anymore, people seem to be
sick of good guys" - while McMahon needs him to turn, to further the
storyline. The Canadian wrestler is told to trash the United States,
where he does 90 percent of his work. The result is "this horrible
predicament that I'm in," as Hart tells McMahon. "You have actually
sabotaged my career."
Remember McMahon's line about "no sympathy"? It gets better. In the
last third of "HITMAN HART" the wrestler and McMahon tussle over the
outcome of Hart's WWF leave-taking. Hart publicly blasts the circuit for
a "smut TV" approach in increased competition with WCW, as the action
gets "raunchier and a lot more sexual." This, in a game McMahon has for
years aimed at a family audience, where Hart's kids freely roam
backstage at matches.
They're there for Hart's big WWF finale in November, 1997, where
Hart "wears a wire" for his big planning session with McMahon. It's not
spoiling anybody's surprise to say there's a shocking in-ring, real-life
double cross and a heated post-match confrontation in which, Hart
confesses, "Vince ran into my hand." (See McMahon stagger from the
room.) Next thing you know, the WWF has a dwarf mimicking the Hitman,
and Hart is at WCW, exiled from family and friends. (It's also no
surprise, after viewing the film's estranged mood between Bret and wife
Julie, to learn the two recently divorced.)
Why does any of this matter? Director Paul Jay, whose other credits
include "The Birth of Language" and "Here's to the Cowboy," delivers
several reasons in his deft chronicle. It matters if integrity and
ideals matter. It matters because Hart isn't just a wrestler, he's an
employee like the rest of us, whose future depends to a large extent on
the machinations of those above him, whose interests are - what a
shock - not always in line with his own. And because wrestling matters
to so many folks today. Watch the fans Jay's camera interviews - the
guy with the red, white and blue-painted face who screams, "It's a male
soap opera"; the devoted woman who swears she was inspired by Hart to
get motivated in life: "When I started liking Bret, everything
Wrestling is also a cash cow in cable TV today. Its TNT and USA
airings are cable's highest rated adult series. And wrestling's
semi-annual pay-per-view spectaculars are the most reliable attractions
in that yet-to-take-hold enterprise. (Next up: Dec. 27's WCW
"Starrcade" from D.C.)
Last but not least, this is one whale of a tale.

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