There Is No Legitimate Authority: Theo Anthony’s Subject To Review

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Even by the balmy standards of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series which has, over the past decade or so, found ways to cram quirk, class consciousness, racial justice, and narrative experimentation into the dad-friendly sports doc format, Theo Anthony’s Subject To Review, about instant replay and tennis, is a superior straggler. Those familiar with Anthony’s 2016 documentary Rat Film, which found a way to use rats in Baltimore to explore the long tail of redlining, providing a portrait of Baltimore’s working class along the way, will not be surprised when Subject To Review takes the scenic route to get to its point, but there is still something incredibly subversive about seeing this 36-minute dérive of a doc pop-up on ESPN on a Sunday afternoon.

Subject To Review explores Hawk-Eye, a computerized, simulation-based instant replay program in use since 2006 which can determine if balls are in or out of bounds with micro-precision, often undermining “IRL” referee decisions. The movie’s concerns, though, are Foucauldian: the awful, sometimes necessary hows and whys for giving someone or something absolute authority. “A visual system initially developed to enhance entertainment becomes a tool for enhancing justice,” the narrator observes at one point. “Justice and entertainment converge.” In one sequence, Serena Williams argues with the referee (in one of those tall chairs high above the court) about a call that was clearly wrong. In another sequence, Roger Federer wonders if there is some way to disagree with a Hawk-Eye decision. There is not. These maintain the mythos of the athlete—the best at what they do debating with their god—and make them look a little ridiculous. This is how one should reckon with sport—an expressive, important, often communal thing that is also big business and ultimately comes down to, well, its rules which never entirely make sense.

Subject To Review reminded me of Yago Colas’ 2016 book, Ball Don’t Lie: Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, where a question from Colas’ wife (“Why do they even need refs?”) exposed the latent, law-and-order-type that’s even inside of someone such as Colas, a left-leaning basketball fanatic. The answer is obvious, he thought at first. Without the authority of the referees, the game would devolve into anarchy. That answer “began to repel [him],” he writes. Here he was offering the sort of argument that he would never make about, say, the police.

Anthony interrogates his own authoritarian impulses through making-of moments stitched into Subject To Review‘s endless scroll-style montage. At one point in the movie, you hear a crew member declare, “Theo’s going to love this,” about a strange moment of chance on the court captured by the camera—a “Look out Haskell, it’s real” moment. Occasionally, the movie shows Anthony sitting outside of a recording booth, giving the documentary’s serious-sounding narrator, Michael Grant, notes on how to deliver a line. These meta-flourishes distract; they are a sort of disclosure: In this documentary about the limits of control, there is still someone in control, director Theo Anthony. Then, over Subject To Review‘s end credits, we see Grant looking ridiculous, undermining any and all authority, including that of Anthony and even ESPN. When you see Grant dancing around and posing with a horse on a tennis court while credits scroll, you might think ESPN has accidentally played the end of a Tim and Eric episode or something.

Anthony also finds time for the inexplicable. In one scene, narrator Grant reads an (appropriately) apocryphal quote supposedly from the Talmud (“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are”) as the camera slowly pans away from the tennis court towards a massive cloud of fog floating above and Dan Deacon’s score scuttles and swells along to a dissolve to close-ups of the fog—one of the most transcendent moments in movies I have experienced in quite some time. See, Subject To Review circles around its ideas, not out of artistic indecision but curiosity and a sense that nothing is ever one hundred, and that all we ever get is a glimpse of the truth. Hawk-Eye too can make mistakes, Subject To Review stresses, those mistakes are just harder to see and harder to undermine, though soon some other technology, which will also occasionally be wrong, will usurp Hawk-Eye’s authority. You leave Subject To Review knowing more and understanding less—the highest praise for a documentary, really.


Movie Listings


Revival: Christ Stopped At Eboli (Francesco Rossi, Italy/France, 1979) Sat: 10:00 a.m.; Mon: 7:00; Thurs: 9:00

Color Out Of Space (Richard Stanley, US, 2020): Fri: 9:30; Sat: 10:10 a.m., 9:30; Sun-Mon: 7:00; Tues-Thurs: 9:30

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, US, 2019). Fri: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Sat: 10:15 a.m., 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Sun: 1:30, 4:00; Mon: 1:00, 4:00; Tues-Wed: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Thurs: 1:00, 4:00, 6:50

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:45, 3:45, 6:50, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 12:45, 3:45, 6:50; Tues-Thurs: 12:45, 3:45, 6:50, 9:35

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US, 2019). Fri: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sat: 10:00 a.m., 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sun: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40; Mon: 12:50, 3:45, 6:55; Tues-Thurs: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019). Fri: 12:55, 3:50, 6:45, 9:35; Sat: 10:05 a.m., 12:55, 3:50, 6:45, 9:35; Sun: 12:55, 3:50; 6:45; Mon: 12:55, 3:50; Tues-Thurs: 12:55, 3:50, 6:45, 9:35

The Song Of Names (François Girard, Canada/ Germany/ Hungary/U.K., 2019). Fri-Thurs: 3:55

Uncut Gems (Benny & Josh Safdie, US, 2019). Fri: 12:45, 6:50, 9:35; Sat: 6:50, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 12:45, 6:50; Tues-Wed: 12:45, 6:50, 9:35; Thurs: 12:45, 6:50


Angel Has Fallen (Ric Roman Waugh, US, 2019): Mon: 5:00, Pennsylvania Avenue Branch

In Remembrance of Martin (Kell Kearns, US, 1986): Mon: 6:00, Washington Village Branch

The Lion King (Jon Favreau, US, 2019): Sat: 2:00, Northwood Branch

Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love (Nick Broomfield, US/Canada/Greece, 2019): Sat: 11:00 a.m., Canton Branch

Where Angels Fear To Tread (Charles Sturridge, UK, 1991). Sat: 10:30 a.m., Roland Park Branch


1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:45, 4:15, 6:45, 9:30; Sun: 12:45, 4:15, 6:45; Mon-Thurs: 6:45, 9:30

2 Weeks In Lagos (Kathryn Fasegha, Nigeria, 2019). Tues: 7:00 (free screening)

2019 Sundance Shorts. Sun: 1:00; Wed: 7:00

Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:15, 4:00, 7:00, 9:15; Sun: 1:15, 4:00, 7:00; Mon: 7:00, 9:15; Tues-Wed: 7:00, 9:30

Dolittle (Stephen Gaghan, US, 2020). Fri: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:15; Sat: 1:00, 7:00. 9:15; Sun: 4:00, 7:00; Mon-Wed: 9:15; Thurs: 7:00.

Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, US, 2019). Sat: 4:00; Thurs: 9:15


1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:45; Sun: 9:45 a.m., 12:50, 3:50, 6:50; Mon: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50; Tues-Thurs: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:45

Revival: Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis, US, 1985). Wed: 7:30

Knives Out (Rian Johnson, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:40, 3:40, 6:35, 9:35; Sun: 9:40 a.m., 12:40, 3:40, 6:35; Mon: 12:40, 3:40, 6:35; Tues-Thurs: 12:40, 3:40, 6:35, 9:35

Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, France, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:35; Sun: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Mon: 4:00, 7:00; Tues: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:35; Wed: 1:00, 4:00; Thurs: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:35

Revival: The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, US, 1987). Sun: 10:00 a.m.; Mon: 1:00

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise Of Skywalker (JJ Abrams, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:35, 3:35, 6:40, 9:40; Sun: 9:40 a.m., 12:35, 3:35, 6:40; Mon: 12:35, 3:35, 6:40; Tues-Thurs: 12:35, 3:35, 6:40, 9:40

Subject To Review can be viewed at ESPN+. A monthly subscription to ESPN+ is $4.99.

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