Department of Aesthetics: A Review of Amazon's “All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines”

By Harry Wexner on April 13, 2018 at 12:00 pm
OSU and UM lineup

Amazon’s new behind-the-scenes documentary “All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines” puzzles the neutral and biased observer.

Even committed Ohio State fans might expect to feel an uneasy, grudging respect for Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines. If nothing else, one might expect to feel energy radiating from Ann Arbor.

Harbaugh is known as motivator willing to take part in unconventional antics to build unity and attract recruits. He makes rap videos, he takes off his shirt at training camps and he rants about whole milk.

Passionate intensity, however, does not define All or Nothing. While not an unedited surveillance tape of Michigan's everyday activities, it has a blissfully unfocused, rambling and distracted quality.

It is like a football version of The Office, which is great for Urban Meyer and Ohio State fans.

All or Nothing begins with Michigan traveling to Rome for a much-publicized spring “training” trip. The eccentric journey plays into Harbaugh’s image as a mad scientist.

While the Roman holiday might have become legendary if Michigan went on to a great season, it feels absurd and stilted in the show. The spectacle of the semi-enthusiastic team singing “Hail to the Victors” to a less enthusiastic crowd of Italians is awkward. The way the camera films the sparsely filled bleachers from certain obvious angles to create the appearance of abundant Roman support feels clumsy.

Harbaugh declares Michigan had the best week of football practice any team has had in history. His players’ body language tells a less inspiring story.

In Episode 2, we are first exposed to the snazzy post-game ritual where Coach Harbaugh yells: “GIVE EACH OTHER A HIGH-FIVE!” All the players in the packed locker give each other high fives. Is this ironic self-parody or sincere 1950s nostalgia?

In Episode 3, quarterback Wilton Speight and his girlfriend share a romantic evening. Speight’s girlfriend remarks: “Yea… But you didn’t really kill it this past game…” I can’t help feeling a little bummed for Wilton. Did that clip really need to make the final cut?

Through all of this, there is surprisingly little emotion from the players and coaches. In episode four, star defensive tackle Rashan Gary brings explosive energy to the sideline and collapses in sorrow when his efforts are not enough to stop Michigan State.

This is heresy, but I can’t help but feel an emotional response to Gary. It is easier to empathize with Michiganders as tragic figures, but Gary makes the show interesting. (Full disclaimer: I hope he does not make things interesting next November, and I already feel intense guilt about these sinful thoughts.)

To be fair, defensive coordinator Don Brown drops his share of F-bombs. Harbaugh, however, seems distracted when he addresses his team. Rallying the squad after a tough loss, Harbaugh sermonizes: “That ball game, it had those elements. You know, fumbles. Interceptions. Penalties. And where it puts us right now is… a shared adversity. We are… we are all sharing that adversity. And understanding that… really sharing it is the thing that pulls us to higher heights.” Hmm…

The climax of the series comes in Episode 7, when Michigan faces Ohio State. “No, John. No, John. No,” coach Pep Hamilton proclaims when third-string quarterback John O’Korn throws an inexplicably bad pass directly to Ohio State’s Jordan Fuller to end the game. Cherished memories.

The episode ends with a tearful John O’Korn telling the press: “The hardest part for me is just… you come here to win this game. And our senior class wasn’t able to do it… And I hold myself responsible for a lot of that. It sucks. I can’t imagine a worse feeling right now.”

Legend has it the Roman general openly wept as he watched Carthage burn. The general sowed salt into the fields, an act of brutality, yet wept for his vanquished foe because he knew the tables could, and indeed would, one day be reversed. Maybe J.T. Barrett felt the same way, after escaping the jaws of gut-wrenching defeat so many times, when he watched O’Korn give that interview. Maybe he didn’t.

If the show ended there, it might have merit as a tragic narrative about a season gone wrong. O’Korn is the tragic antihero who comes so close to having it all only to have his hopes dashed. Instead, the series turns into a comedy of errors.

Episode 8 covers Michigan’s bowl game loss, which seems almost expected. The Maize and Blue fall to South Carolina in a close contest. It feels like the loss is mostly the added insult to an already festering injury.

“We’ve gotta learn how to win. I mean, what if one of these guys becomes a doctor? It’s pretty important that they… win.”– Jim Harbaugh

The next morning, Harbaugh rises early. He enters his walk-in closet filled with dozens of neatly ordered stacks of slacks, “M” hats and black Michigan thermals. It is less a new revelation and more a confirmation of something we already know that Harbaugh has a closet filled with copies of the exact same outfit. He probably heard a TED Talk about eliminating choices so you can focus on winning all the time.

Harbaugh literally goes back to the drawing board. His board, which he stares at with a blank look in his eyes, is covered with a dizzying array of color-coded boxes, pyramids, and phrases like “AINT HARD BEING A FOOTBALL PLAYER IF YOU ARE A ‘FOOTBALL PLAYER’” and “FAT IS THE ENEMY OF SPEED.”

You can’t argue with that. “We’ve gotta learn how to win,” coach H muses, “I mean, what if one of these guys becomes a doctor? It’s pretty important that they… win.”

In the concluding minutes, we see a montage of the best moments of the series set to inspiring music and a voice-over of Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh speaks with gusto about how he’ll know how good his team really was when the players come back in 15 years and he sees what kind of husbands and fathers they are.

This is compelling in a cliché way, but it totally subverts the show’s title: “All or Nothing.” Alas, it's probably the wiser move for Amazon than renaming the series Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines.

As the final credits roll, there is one last surprise in store. We see a smattering of players hanging out and enjoying the camaraderie of Michigan football in an on-campus house shared by several players.

As a crowd gathers for the forthcoming kickback, an entering player walks directly into the glass screen door and bounces backward. Is this a closing homage to the easygoing humor and kind vibes that pervade UM football? Do the Wolverines literally get the last laugh? Or is it the filmmaker’s sly metaphor for Michigan’s 2017 season?

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