Nimrod Nation is a four-hour documentary about a small town high school basketball team that, like Steve James' Hoop Dreams, is enjoyable even for those of us that don't spend our weekends watching other people play games. Originally aired on the Sundance Channel in eight parts, Nimrod Nation follows a small town team throughout the 2005-'06 high school basketball season.
Nimrod Nation seems more like something out of fiction than reality: Take a small working-class town (Watersmeet Township, pop. 1472); set it in a remote otherworldly landscape (Michigan's Upper Peninsula); add heaping doses of snow and exotic winter sports and hunting; add an immensely talented high school boys basketball team coming off back-to-back 17-5 and 23-2 seasons; give it a quirky team name (Nimrods); have it be drawn from an impossibly small student body (just 240 K-12 students); make the school principal the coach and the father to one of the star players; make the other star player a poor, fatherless Native American dating a poor, fatherless white cheerleader; add a Greek chorus of elderly Nimrod graduates to provide authoritative summarizations and insights on the drama, mix it all up and there you have Nimrod Nation.
Executive Producer Brett Morgen uses half a dozen directors, three directors of photography, and another four camera operators to capture the action wherever it occurs. The camera crews seem to be well versed on everybody's agenda, and from all appearances nothing of importance that occurs in Watersmeet Township during the 2005-'06 basketball season is missed. Whether because of the talent of the film crew, or just because everybody in America now expects to have their fifteen minutes of fame, the few dozen local people who are the central documentary subjects seem to take little notice of the camera. With the exception of the drama teacher, there's little apparent playing to the camera from anyone, and consequently the documentary feels far more real than what one generally finds on "reality" television.
Though there's no narration in Nimrod Nation, it's clear that the filmmakers are captivated by the idea that Watersmeet Township and its residents represent a nearly bygone alternative to the mainstream sedentary media-driven American lifestyle. The filmmakers present Watersmeet Township as a place where kids would rather be outdoors shooting deer than indoors shooting Microsoft-rendered aliens, and adults would rather discuss the affairs of the day at a coffee shop or town meeting, than listen to talk radio or watch Fox News or The View.
Basketball comes increasingly to the fore in Nimrod Nation as the season moves on, and the filmmakers show great skill in editing the game play to drive the narrative forward without seeming to be overly manipulative. Some of the drama is undercut by the documentary's structure which leaves the viewer knowing how far the Nimrods will go in post-season play before they do. Nevertheless, Nimrod Nation's last act doesn't feel like a trudge to inevitability because the story is always larger than the game.
This review is based on a pair of check discs. The commercial release may vary.
The 16:9 anamorphically enhanced widescreen image looks good. Colors levels are stable, and the image generally looks sharp, though moiré patterns and other minor digital distortions are occasionally apparent.
The 2.0 stereo audio generally sounds good for documentary filmmaking, with the dialogue being essentially mono but the score playing back and forth across the front channels. There are a couple of noticeable dropouts on the check discs provided for this review, but overall audio is clear and the sound levels are steady.
There are no subtitles on this release.
The only extra is an interview with executive producer Brett Morgan (6:30) in which he discusses getting the inspiration for Nimrod Nation while making a series of television commercials for ESPN about the Nimrods, and about how he feels the show differs from standard "reality" television.
Though aired on the Sundance Channel in eight discrete parts, Nimrod Nation is essentially a four-hour feature documentary. A single season of high school basketball is the central narrative arc about which the documentary is structured, but the totality of small town life in U.P. Michigan, or at least the filmmakers' perception of it, is what Nimrod Nation is really about.
The period of filming is too short and the range of focus too broad to get the depth of something like Steve James' Hoop Dreams, or David Sutherland's essential story of boys growing up in hardscrabble Appalachia, Country Boys, but Nimrod Nation admirably avoids being just another "reality" show.
Nimrod Nation is recommended.