‘Vick’ Review: Latest ’30 for 30′ Installment Shows the Difficulty of Considering a Life in Full

Odds are good you know Michael Vick for one of two things, and Stanley Nelson's documentary divides its time between those well-covered options.
Vick ESPN 30 for 30
Michael Vick
Shawn Thew/EPA/Shutterstock

“Redemption” is a tricky word. It’s one that comes up toward the end of “Vick” — Stanley Nelson’s two-part, four-hour “30 for 30” profile of former NFL quarterback Michael Vick — though it’s not brought up by its title subject.

In an attempt to provide a full accounting of Vick’s life and career, “Vick” stops short of full absolution or outright condemnation. With a person who’s still capable of inspiring equally passionate reactions — from those who argue for his superiority as a generationally influential football player, as well as those who say his role in a highly publicized dogfighting scandal should negate any athletic legacy — Nelson has made something that looks to address both as thoroughly as possible. It’s an admirable goal, but in this expansive project that winds between moments of insight and moments of redundancy, that pull between two opposite ideas doesn’t leave much room for anything else.

“Vick” notably begins by trying to convey the former quarterback’s thoughts during one of those rock-bottom moments — an opening reminder of where a promising trajectory is eventually heading. Though some will undoubtedly levy charges of image rehab against “Vick,” moments like this come with a hand-in-hand sense of understanding that Vick wasn’t blameless in the actions leading to his incarceration and acknowledge his punishment had lasting effects on those close to him.

As tends to be the case in some of the most noteworthy recent “30 for 30” installments, “Vick” uses its access to the vast ESPN archive not just to pull highlights, but to show how the network has irrevocably shifted the sports media landscape. Vick’s explosive on-the-field achievements speak for themselves. It’s the strategically placed montages of NFL Live, SportsCenter, and Pardon the Interruption hot take back-and-forths that show how Vick evolved from athletic marvel to a foundational text in the new media ecosystem built on not being able to let two things be true at once.

Vick ESPN 30 for 30
Michael VickJohn Russell/AP/Shutterstock

In its own way, “Vick” becomes a different kind of binary. Split into two parts, the documentary largely tries to cut through Vick as a prismatic figure by separating out his life into two main sections. The first half concentrates on his football evolution, rising from touted high school star to a hometown college hero and a lightning bolt to the greater NFL consciousness. The second half follows Vick’s inverse post-2007 parabola, through his conviction for taking part in a dogfighting ring, his jail time, and the eventual return to taking snaps on Sundays.

With the slow pendulum swing between his sporting achievements and the punishment that shaped so many non-football-fan opinions of him, “Vick” has trouble juggling topics that don’t fall into either of those two categories. Nelson gives an effective summary of Vick’s football highs and lows, painting the picture of someone who’s greatest enemy was his own self-imposed limitations. An introspective Vick acknowledges the times throughout his career when his own preparation and discipline lacked because his ability always seemed to find a way to overcome them anyway.

There are parts where Vick’s own contributions add a greater sense of understanding to the public picture that’s been shaped over the last decade and a half. Even though his descriptions of how he felt during his NFL success is largely in line with athlete shorthand, it’s interesting to see where this humbled man still lets himself be hyperbolic about his own accomplishments. When things eventually shift to his time spent serving out a 23-month prison sentence, the handful of moments he shares from inside Leavenworth give insight into how he handled such a precipitous drop.

But in an effort to understand Vick’s cultural impact, “Vick” goes beyond the expected input from family, coaches, and close associates. With any single-figure documentary, there’s the permanent struggle to balance a full history of the person with how they’re perceived across a bevy of different subcategories. (It’s a running theme of sorts in the forthcoming Hulu series “Hillary,” which has an added benefit of getting more direct contribution from Hillary Clinton in a variety of different arenas.) So some of the greatest value in “Vick” is how those beat writers and cultural critics, led by ESPN’s own Bomani Jones, are able to see the ripples of Vick’s impact in ways the man himself never really could have.

Vick ESPN 30 for 30

Also more instructive are the tiny parallels that aren’t made explicit, yet show how much of an influential figure Vick was, whether he was conscious of it or not. Vick was making public announcements of his career intentions backed by Boys and Girls Club members a decade before LeBron James would do the same. Some of those — like the relatively offhanded call for Vick’s execution by a man who now anchors one of the nation’s most-watched political TV shows — are enough to break through the film’s internal wrestling between the two things Vick is most known for.

Others are left as tantalizing reminders of the areas of Vick’s legacy that “Vick” still leaves largely unexplored. There’s the early reference to Michael’s brother Marcus, who eventually went on to his own overshadowed Virginia Tech career. Though “Vick” does feature on-camera, on-the-record input from Roger Goodell, one could argue the NFL commissioner’s elastic suspension of Vick was the first major step in setting up a system that still punishes players in an arbitrary, ad hoc manner (one that has rarely given the same level scrutiny to perpetrators of domestic violence).

“Vick” still captures what Michael Vick continues to mean to people. At each level, as it zooms out from family to neighborhood to city to global influence, this was a man who was trying to achieve something on the field that would inspire an opposite reaction. “Vick” recognizes that football already gave Michael Vick the second chance he needed, so showing that in documentary form won’t do anything differently. Even if it doesn’t have as much to uncover, acknowledging how difficult it is to reconcile two opposing perceptions of a household name is as much a part of the “Vick” story as anything else.

Grade: B

“Vick” premieres Thursday, January 30 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. The second part will air Thursday, February 6 at the same time.

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