Earlier this week, ESPN aired the (much-publicized) latest entry in their acclaimed 30 for 30 series, Once Upon a Time in Queens. Last year the network had a smash hit with The Last Dance, a documentary series focused on the career of Michael Jordan and his final season in Chicago. Following the success of that, they quickly announced this four part series, directed by Nick Davis, to air in time to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the last New York Mets team to win a World Series.
Once Upon a Time in Queens focuses on the New York Mets from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, with special emphasis being given to the1986 Mets who won a World Series. The series tracks how the team went from losers who couldn’t get out of their own way to perennial contenders and finally, champions. It also touches on how quickly they fell from grace afterwards, being swiftly dismantled almost immediately after reaching the zenith.
This series is an extremely well-done piece of filmmaking from all aspects. In terms of storytelling, this film is easy to follow, hits all the big moments while also bringing in smaller stories to help create the fullest picture possible. You hear about all the big games, big hits and defensive wizardry, but they also give little tidbits such as the Mets having four players arrested for assaulting a police officer in Houston, which comes back later as another piece of the puzzle when they play against Houston in the NLCS. The documentary does a good job of explaining the big moments of each game, showing footage of the big plays and using talking heads to help fill in any gaps.
The series also intersperses the chronology of the games with players backstories, which help create fuller pictures of who they were, how they played, and why they made certain decisions or why certain events occurred. It doesn’t shy away from sensitive subjects either. It goes in depth on the substance abuse issues, particularly those of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. It speaks on Darryl Strawberry’s domestic violence, the aggressive and often destructive behavior of the team, and the abusive and traumatic childhoods of many of the star players on the team. It also doesn’t let the bad behavior get away undiscussed, either. As previously mentioned it goes into Strawberry’s domestic violence history during the team’s success, it also discusses the teams general view of women at the time as contrasted to the post-MeToo time we live in now. It could go a little harder in that aspect, as it touches on it but never examines it for more than a minute.
It also ties in with the sociopolitical environment of the time. The fact that racism was widespread not only within the citizens of New York but also within the team itself, with players like Kevin Mitchell and Strawberry being often the target of it, as well as George Foster’s issues of the team and his accusations of racism against the team and being subsequently released and replaced by Lee Mazzili. It also talks to the city’s growing obsession with money and fame and how the Mets fit perfectly into the center of it.
On the technical side, it is a wonderfully made documentary. It mixes archival footage of games, news broadcasts at the time, films, and talking heads from all walks of Mets life. There are former players, coaches, famous fans, and they also had Mets and Red Sox fans send in videos of their memories of the 1986 World Series (and often, specifically Game 6). And they all fill in each other’s blanks, and oftentimes the players’ stories overlap, and sometimes they conflict and it’s up to the viewer to decide where the truth lies (usually it’s somewhere in the middle).
The archival footage is a lot of what already exists in the world, but there are a few instances of footage that hasn’t been widely available before and it is some of the most electric footage that could exist. There is a marvelous tracking shot that would make Martin Scorsese jealous, showing Mookie Wilson after he got the game winning hit in Game 6 from the field to the dugout through the tunnel and finally to the clubhouse, and captured the pure ecstasy of that moment for Wilson, a window into a world that had only been seen from the outside before.
The music in this documentary is equally as fantastic as the rest of the filmmaking. The score is truly great, feeling modern yet of a time with the 80s and also capturing the feel of the great sport film scores which is a feel of wonder and triumph. But the songs chosen for use are so fitting for the moments they are placed in it’s as if they were written for that moment. There’s a sequence showing several Mets victories, intercut with President Ronal Reagan’s speech at the re-lighting of Statue of Liberty torch about the unity of a group of very different people, all laid over the Tears for Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule to World,” a mixture so perfect it’s amazing to think they had nothing to do with each other.
Like the 1986 Mets, this documentary is fantastic but not perfect. There are times where the pacing is a little weird. The 1986 World Series sees the first five games summed up in about fifteen or twenty minutes across the end of Part 3 and the start of Part 4. And while it’s understandable that the filmmakers would want to zero in on the last two games, a little more context and description would be nice, as it was very matter of fact, getting them out of the way for the real show of Game 6 and Game 7. As previously mentioned, they could’ve hit a little harder at the players for their behavior towards women and in general. The documentary had no issue talking about many real world issues as how they related to the team but it didn’t go quite as hard when it could for how the players acted towards others.
Overall, Once Upon a Time in Queens is a brilliant documentary that creates a full, vibrant picture of the last team to win it all in Queens. It not only contains skilled storytelling but assured filmmaking and shows the team as they were, in all their distinction and distaste. One of the fan videos contains the quote, “being a lifelong Mets fan is about pain.” This documentary helps, even if just for a moment, to forget the pain of the last 35 years and relive the ecstasy.