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Zack Snyder's forgotten Michael Jordan film is still one of his best

by Stewart Cole

Zack Snyder has always been obsessed with heroes. And if it comes to his unlikely heroes Rebel Moon and Army of the Dead or his tenure in the DC Universe, that obsession always comes through in his work. But to see how deeply the themes of mythological heroes run in his films, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of his career and the first film he ever made, a Michael Jordan documentary hybrid called Playground. It is available for digital rental or purchase at Prime Video (or you can find it on YouTube).

The film follows a young kid who is cut from his high school basketball team and wanders, disillusioned, to a local playground where he meets a seemingly supernatural Michael Jordan. While the kid is ostensibly the film's main character, it's all set for Jordan to tell his own creation myth.

A movie that creates myths about Jordan is a natural fit: He's one of the greatest sports heroes of the past 50 years. But what makes Snyder's film so spectacular is that it's also a call-shot. The movie was released in 1990 and was shot before that. This is just six years into Jordan's illustrious NBA career and one year before his first of six NBA titles. It's improbable, it's still the kind of origin story worthy of the greatest, most dominant player the sport has ever seen.

See, Jordan explains, he too was cut from his varsity team. His greatness at the University of North Carolina was even understated as he was passed over by two teams in the NBA draft (the Rockets' selection of fellow all-time superstar Hakeem Olajuwon was justified, but the Trail Blazers will never live picking trivia Sam Bowie over Jordan). It's all true, but it's also all classic Snyder. Like his Superman origin Man of Steel, is a fateful tail of an underdog: not a story of someone born without gifts destined for supernatural success, but someone whose talent was innate and only needed to be recognized. The greatest player of all time, hiding on his high school team's bench like Kryptonian in Kansas.

Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In this era, before Snyder could get the budget to make his own heroic images, he settled for Jordan's highlight clips. Playground consists primarily of cut-out montages of Jordan's superhuman athleticism, each clip building into the next to reveal a more complete and increasingly impressive picture of greatness. In the highlights, it's easy to see the primal scene of Snyder's best action scenes. The style and sensibility is already there in spades, and techniques that would make him famous 300like slow motion, slick editing and repeating sequences from different angles all make an appearance.

With nearly 34 years in hindsight, and Snyder's entire career thus far to compare it to, it's clear that the director did more than foreshadow the greatness of basketball's GOAT in Playground. In telling the story of Michael Jordan, Snyder also built his own legend. He was born, it seems, with a pre-existing talent for conveying greatness on screen. Not humanity or humility, traits that the exceptional in Snyder's worlds do not need, but the transcendent, superhuman talent that turns people into legends. Playground it's exactly the quasi-documentary that a young Michael Jordan deserved in the year before his ascension, and it's made by the one filmmaker who was able to make the player a legend before the rest of the world saw it. And for all the successes and failures of his career thus far, Snyder has never before worked with a subject capable of matching the stratospheric heights of his epic poems the way Michael Jordan could—not even Superman.

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