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12/18/1998 8:40:58 PM

Chicago Tribune Review
astonishingly compelling

HART TO HEART

By Steve Johnson
Tribune Television Critic
December 18, 1998

The temptation is to hail "Hitman Hart:
Wrestling with Shadows" as one of the best
and most surprisingly resonant
documentaries you will see, no matter
whether you savor or savage pro wrestling
and its garish, testosterone-fueled morality
plays.

But first you have to consider whether the
film is merely an elaborate crock.

It is, after all, about Bret "The Hitman" Hart,
a longtime superstar of the World Wrestling
Federation, and it was made with the
cooperation of the WWF, an organization
that is to extravagantly staged events what
Puff Daddy is to pop-song recycling.

Its U.S. TV debut (8 p.m. Sunday, A&E;)
could amount to just another gasoline-soaked
log on the publicity bonfire for wrestling, the
American answer to kabuki theater that has
become the most popular programming on
cable television by making its sumo-sized
actors reach for new extremes of stylized
outlandishness.

I wouldn't put any level of fraud past Vince
McMahon, the WWF's no-neck combination
of P.T. Barnum, Danielle Steel and East
German shotputter. And except that he has
never admitted to steroid use, Ted Turner,
who owns the rival World Championship
Wrestling and now employs Bret Hart, might
as well be called the Vince McMahon of
cable television.

But watching the two-hour film, an
astonishingly compelling look at a year in the
life of Hart as his relationship with
McMahon's WWF goes sour, you have to
conclude that nobody, not even a pro
wrestler, is that good an actor.

As it builds artfully toward a climax that has
been labeled "the biggest double cross in the
history of pro wrestling," "Wrestling with
Shadows" is, then, what it purports to be.
Yes, it is a detailed portrait of an
entertainment juggernaut, especially in the
backstage places where the course of
matches and careers is determined, but more
broadly, it is an examination of the tortured
psyche of an aging showman as the
spectacle changes around him.

Bret Hart, a scraggly haired, barrel-chested,
preternaturally tan Canadian, could be a
crooner wondering why his records no longer
sell or a starlet realizing that all the scripts
she gets now contain nude scenes.

Whatever parallels he summons up, he turns
out to be the perfect subject for the
filmmakers, led by award-winning
writer-producer Paul Jay. In his father, Stu
Hart, an angry bear of a figure from pro
wrestling's early days, there is both the
history of the game and the classic theme of
paternal affection withheld.

In Hart's complicated relationship with
McMahon -- the explosive, violent finale of
which the filmmakers were lucky enough to
witness and smart enough to make the
movie's climax -- there are echoes of every,
yes, artist, whoever signed a career-making
but soul-stealing deal with a record producer,
a manager, a publisher.

And in Hart himself, who seems to have
ingested wrestling's almost cartoonish sense
of morality and is the more sympathetic for
it, is the story of modern-day wrestling. He
joined the WWF at the height of its 1980s
resurgence, was its hero during some
relatively lean years thereafter, and in the
film is a little stunned as the pseudosport,
fueled by cable and the WCW-WWF rivalry,
has come back stronger than ever but also
different.

The fans, he laments, are starting to cheer
the villains more lustily than the heroes,
which is perhaps a measure of the changing
culture, perhaps a side effect of pro
wrestling no longer keeping up the pretense
of sport. It now allows independent film
crews to poke into its locker rooms and is
commonly referred to, even by its most
ardent fans, as "sports entertainment" and
"soap opera for men."

The film is there as Hart learns that, to
satisfy fans' desire for more complex stories,
he has to become a jingoistic heel, at least
for American crowds. Wearing his national
heritage on his sleeveless tights, he taunts a
Pittsburgh audience, then, afterward, regrets
comparing the city to an unpleasant bodily
orifice.

"That wasn't me," he tells the film crew. "I'm
stuck in purgatory. I can't be a great good
guy, and I can't be a great bad guy anymore.
. . . They've sabotaged my career."

He wonders if he can possibly win back the
fans, who now violently flip him off. He
bemoans turning down a $9 million,
three-year offer to jump to the WCW, taking
less money in order to stay loyal to
McMahon. And he publicly criticizes the turn
the WWF takes, toward lurid sexual
suggestiveness in its characters and
storylines, to try to regain supremacy over
the WCW.

"It's become smut to me," he says.

Perhaps, but the movie about all of this -- so
effective that in its finale it manages to make
a wrestling-ring result poignant -- turns it into
art.

McMahon's vulgarized WWF is now leading
Turner's WCW in the viewership battle,
though both do very well, and Bret Hart is
now, apparently, cast as a leading bad guy
for the Turner team. But by taking part in
this movie and revealing himself as more
than a hastily drawn hulk, Hart not only will
test how complex fans really want their
wrestlers to be, he also risks regaining some
of the loyalty he thought he had sacrificed.

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