Monday, March 4, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Bye Bye Barry’ Fails To Answer Interesting Questions

Directors: Paul Monusky, Micaela Powers, and Angela Torma
Stars: Tim Allen, Bill Belichick, Jeff Daniels

Synopsis: The definitive story of Barry Sanders’ Hall-of-Fame career and his extraordinary decision to walk away from the game in the prime of his career.

It was one of the most shocking decisions in pro football history when Barry Sanders retired. Why would a man in the prime of his career walk away after ten stellar seasons in the National Football League? Including being in striking distance from breaking one of the most coveted records in professional sports, Walter Payton’s NFL career mark for rushing yards. It was so controversial at the time that for years, networks like ESPN followed the man’s every retired move. The problem with Bye Bye Barry is that, even though it offers insight from a notoriously reclusive athlete, decades later, with what we know about American professional football, you may wonder why he didn’t leave sooner.

The documentary attempts to offer answers to that unanswered question. The fact that Sanders played ten straight seasons and never had less than 1,000 yards rushing had the look of a disgruntled athlete who wanted out of his contract to play for a contender. There were rumors that the documentary never addressed. For one, a story tracked for months was the Miami Dolphins attempting to coax Sanders out of retirement.

The Detroit Lions, who are notoriously unforgiving regarding their athletic alums, would not relinquish their rights. Directors Paul Monusky, Micaela Powers, and Angela Torma (yes, three of them) do an excellent job of outlining the legendary running back’s confusion and disdain for the organization’s tactics toward their best players. So much so that you’d have difficulty walking away from Bye Bye Barry without concluding this was the reason and also a strategy.

However, considering the physical and emotional toll the sport has on athletes and the lifespan of running backs, which is only 2.65 years (lower than other players and considering the decade Sanders thrived in), it’s not at all surprising. He’s a man who lived through two of the worst injuries in NFL history (former Lion players Mike Utley and Reggie Brown). It would put any man’s life in perspective, especially with a family waiting for him. Some of these points are brought up and come out of the Hall of Famer’s mouth, but if you watch closely and listen intently, they are never confirmed.

And that’s the problem you should have with the film. The documentary hardly offers any more insight from the day Sanders left the NFL to the day filming Prime Video called it a wrap. There are too many pointless interviews with celebrities like Jeff Daniels, Eminem, and, of all people, Tim Allen, to provide expert “context” on why Sanders was the greatest running back ever. The filmmakers have a limited sense of football history, considerably affecting the picture’s structure.

Sanders’s time at Oklahoma State is largely ignored and should have played a more prominent part. For one, he was stuck behind another Hall of Famer running back in the Buffalo Bills, Thurman Thomas. Even though the film shows a handful of highlights against the legendary AFC team of that decade, the former teammate was never mentioned. In fact, instead of a three-headed running back monster, which was the last time running backs dominated the NFL, Sanders is only compared to Emmitt Smith. Exploring this relationship and spending more time with his college career would have tightened the film considerably.

Other insights should be approached and answered if you do not answer that fundamental question. For one, Sanders had to share the NFL MVP with Brett Favre even though he ran for 2,000 yards (only the second person to do so) in a league dominated by African-American athletes. Yet, he only won the award 22% of the time in the Super Bowl era. 

How about the unforgettable moment he fell asleep on the bench during a game? This is incredibly relevant since the film portrays the players as egoless, often pulling themselves out of games to give others a chance. Or all pertinent insight into why his father called him the third-best running back in NFL history during his Hall of Fame introduction speech? 

No, we don’t have to probe the psychological damage done by overbearing fathers in every narrative feature. Still, perhaps it’s even more fascinating how Sanders maturely worked through the situation instead of letting it scar him for life. 

If anyone deserves a money-grab puff piece, it’s Barry Sanders because, by all accounts, he’s an MVP of being a good and decent man, which is hard to find when it comes to superstardom these days. However, that doesn’t make Bye Bye Barry good, interesting, or worth your time.

Grade: C-

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