12/20/1998 10:03:27 AM
St. Paul Tribune Review
St. Paul Star Tribune
written by Noel Holston
for December 19, 1998
"Hitman" Wrestles With Serious Issues
Professional wrestler Bret hart, aka the Hitman, looks weary as he sits on the
edge of the bed in his Toronto hotel room, his final match as a Word Wrestling
Federation (WWF) star just hours away.
"People talk about wrestling not being real," he says. He pauses for a
moment, as if replaying memories for confirmation: "It's far more real than
It's not the violence of wrestling that Hart is talking about, however. One
of the virtues of Paul Jay's terrific documentary, "Hitman Hart: Wrestling
with Shadows, "is that it never pretends that the body-slam ballets are
anything more - or less - than theater. Hart is talking about the hard work
and the emotion the wrestlers invest in their characters and, in his case, his
real pride in the good-guy role he played for most of this career.
Hart loved being a hero to kids, his own young son included. "Hitman stands
for stickin' up for yourself and to never quit," he says.
Hart's self-respect is on the line as the documentary opens. It's Nov. 9,
1997. He's about to jump to rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW), and he
wants to go out a winner in his last WWF match. WWF mastermind Vince McMahon
has other ideas.
Jay's documentary is constructed like a dramatic film. After setting the
stage for a showdown, he backtracks a year. He blends footage of how Hart got
to a career crossroads with revelatory behind-the-scenes footage of the
multimillion-dollar wrestling business and irresistible clips of Hart with his
brothers and his father, wrestlers all, at home in their native Canada.
In 1996, Hart turned down a $9 million offer from Ted Turner's upstart WCW -
partly out of loyalty to McMahon, partly because McMahon promised to let him
finish out his career in heroic fashion.
Subsequently, McMahon and Hart began to notice a shift in wrestling fans'
taste. More and more, the spectators were cheering for the bad guys - the
Stone Cold Steve Austins and Shawn Michaels who took cheap hosts and were even
lousier winners than they were losers.
McMahon persuaded Hart to become a villain in order to prolong his career. The
Canadian's new shtick - grounded in his very real disappointment with American
fans' embrace of thuggish wrestlers - was to badmouth the United States. But
after Hart became one of the most vehemently booed wrestlers in America,
McMahon pleaded financial difficulties and said he couldn't honor the long-
term agreement that had kept Hart in the WWF.
The documentary's finale, centering on Hart's final WWF match, is as dramatic
as that of most movies you'll see this year. Jay had Hart wear a wireless
microphone to his off-camera meeting with McMahon, just before show time, to
hash out how the match would progress and conclude. You will hear McMahon
agree to a game plan that is not carried out. You will see a level of
disappointment and anger in Hart that, if it's acting, means he could teach
Robert De Niro a few lessons.
In a phone interview from Toronto, Jay said he had no inkling such a
compelling morality play would unfold when he started shooting a biography of
Hart. He said he originally planned to devote more time to Hart's eccentric
family, especially his elderly father, Stu, who can still make college
wrestlers beg for mercy.
Jay's previous credit include documentaries about Quebec's secession movement,
socialism in Albania and the origins of language. He said he had never spent
more than a few seconds at a time watching wrestling until he stumbled onto an
interview with Hart on German TV and was struck by the wrestler's dramatic
He said he expects a favorable response from wrestlers and wrestling fans in
this country, based on the reaction after the film was broadcast in Canada.
"The wrestlers have a serious inferiority complex," he said. "They take what
they do as a serious performance art. But the mainstream society and media
look at them as circus animals or roller-derby guys. Wrestling fans feel like
for the first time they've had a serious look at what they care about."
Considering that McMahon comes across as an unprincipled sleaze in the film, I
wondered if he had made any effort to stop it.
Jay said the WWF has had a copy of "Hitman Hart" for weeks. "They were
surprised at how fair it is," he said. "They thought we were going to cream
He said McMahon's main concern was that Turner would try to use the film to
promote Hart and/or the WCW. "To get the WWF to provide privacy releases and
stock footage, which they had promised, we had to agree that we couldn't sell
the film to Turner in any way, shape or form," Jay said. "We can't even
advertise the video on a WCW program."
Still, Jay said, he believe the film will help Hart one way or another -
perhaps launch his movie career, at least break him free of the villain role
he's still unhappily stuck in. "It's going to be hard to buy Bret as a stupid
jerk after watching the film," Jay said.
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