Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, from first timers Tom Bean and Luke Poling, is an engaging and succinct document of a man’s life. Running just under 90 minutes, Plimpton! manages to inform who George Plimpton was, where he came from, what he did, and the legacy and impact he has left behind. Most born at the end of the 20th Century probably have no idea who George Plimpton was, and this will introduce them to a very unique voice. For those that knew about Plimpton and read his books, this will provide more. There are moments that some will be familiar with, and some that no one has seen or heard before, including audio of the deposition that Plimpton gave LAPD the night his friend and candidate Robert Kennedy was shot. The documentary is compiled from a collection of archive materials, audio recordings, footage from TV specials, and talking head interviews. It is well constructed and follows Plimpton’s life in a linear fashion. From childhood, to editor of The Paris Review, to his work as a participatory journalist, his personal life, and finally back to his most famous work, Paper Lion.
Along with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, Plimpton’s writing style falls under the umbrella of mid-century New Journalism: writers using narrative non-fiction to recount events in first-person prose. Plimpton’s most famous work, Paper Lion, recounts his stint as a back-up quarterback for the Detroit Lions during the 1963 pre-season. His insight into the role of the quarterback, and the professional athlete in general, stands alone as Plimpton is one of the few to actually get in there and get his hands dirty.
Even though the bulk of Plimpton’s work and writings were in sports, it does not seem like Plimpton was imbued or hindered with a competitive nature. He was a true journalist, with curiosity and appreciation first and foremost. This is most evident when he recounts his brief experience as a major league pitcher in an exhibition baseball game. One of Plimpton’s pitches was turned into one of the most beautiful home runs he ever saw. Awe is not an emotion that a pitcher typically feels while he watches the ball sail over his head and into the third deck. Never without a sense of humor, he claimed it was so beautiful that he took pride in helping create it.
The documentary doesn’t just stop at a simple recounting and recreation of a man’s life, it also seeks to uncover the true identity of Plimpton. Some of the interviewees hint at the private, the intimate, even the dark side of George Plimpton, but no one quite hits the nail on the head. However, the documentary seems to answer the question without coming out and saying it too loudly. George Plimpton was a writer. Few works read as easily as Plimpton’s novels, and that takes a tremendous amount of work. Paper Lion, Empty Net, and The Bogey Man all open doors to the reader that were otherwise closed off. In participating as an amateur in professional situations, Plimpton uncovered that there really is a chasm that separates the two. Doing what Plimpton did takes real commitment, real guts, and involves falling flat on your face, something that Plimpton worked hard to avoid, but never seemed embarrassed when it inevitably happened. I think that is why Plimpton was so beloved by those that he worked with. Plimpton’s goal was not to undermine, not to make fun, not to be the best at anything. His goal was to understand. That is something that is in very short supply these days.