By: Steve Pulaski
As I settled in to watch '85: The Greatest Team in Football History during the one-night only showing of the documentary on January 29th, 2018, I took note of the wealth of trivia displayed in rotation on the theater-screen before the film began. It was one long brag-reel, boasting the insane accomplishments of the 1985 Chicago Bears football team, such as the fact that in the three playoff games the Bears played on their way to Super Bowl XX, they routed their opponents 93-10. The Bears' defense also held their regular season opponents to roughly 13 points a game, making them one of the most impenetrable defensive fronts ever seen in football, hence them earning considerably high praise in the very title of Chicago-born filmmaker Scott Prestin's documentary.
These facts coincided with two germane thoughts in my mind: Bears fans, like myself, are hopelessly stuck in the past, but on one hand, haven't been given much to cheer about this decade, or since their crushing defeat in Super Bowl XLI. The Bears are coming off another disappointing season, marred by inconsistent play and thousands of fans not showing up despite the team's addition of second overall draft pick Mitch Trubisky, who hopes, along with the fans, to be the team's quarterback of the future. They've just fired John Fox as their head coach after a 14-34 record over the course of three seasons, and a few weeks ago, it was announced that Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy would be his replacement as the franchise's 16th head coach — the fourth different coach this decade.
Like the fantastic "30 for 30" documentary The '85 Bears, which premiered on ESPN in 2016, '85: The Greatest Team in Football History looks to capture simpler times in lieu of a woeful present. When all else fails, nostalgia warms the heart like a fluffy blanket, and Prestin's documentary takes a player-centered approach in effort to capturing the essence of one of the most colorful and personality-driven football teams in the history of the NFL. It was a team highlighted by defensive dominance, with knockout competitors like Dan Hampton, William "The Fridge" Perry, Mike SIngletary, and my personal favorite, Steve "Mongo" McMichael making up the core unit. Meanwhile, a scruffy coaching staff marked by head coach Mike Ditka's offensive wisdom and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's exceptional creativity provided the fuel to the fire. The '85 Bears was a team comprised of scrappy overachievers that found a way to obliterate your quarterback and soil your passing game, so they could assure they'd be in control of the ball for most of the game and drive up the score as a result.
Prestin appears to have just as much fun profiling this energy as the players do reliving the indelible memories and history they created. He devotes an extensive amount of time to showing what a talented loose-cannon the team's quarterback, Jim McMahon, was, and his friction with Ditka due to McMahon's desire to disobey his head coach's orders and conceive plays on the fly. McMahon pops up in the film several times as he always does, with dark shades not even suggesting he has eyeballs in his head. Prestin also gives respect to Walter Payton, arguably the greatest running back ever to grace a football field. While the long-gone epitome of his nickname "Sweetness" isn't here to bask in the memories of an iconic team, his spirit is nonetheless felt thanks to Prestin's respectful tribute.
Also significant interview subjects in '85 are actor Bill Murray, a lifelong Chicago sports fan, who recounts the ignominy of the Bears and the hostility of their fans, among other things throughout the film, as well as former President Barack Obama, who lived in Chicago during the time of the team's dominance. Instead of a presence that feels tacky and justified by status, Murray and Obama provide dimension with their statements, and help give Prestin's film a historical context that does its part to separate itself from The '85 Bears. Also interviewed is Ike Barinholtz, who you'll recognize from shows like MADtv and the upcoming film Blockers, who talks about his intense Bears fandom, the same fandom that led him to name his daughter after Walter Payton (disclaimer: she's not named "Walter").
'85: The Greatest Team in Football History suffers by comparison to the aforementioned ESPN "30 for 30" simply because that film, which was predicated upon Buddy Ryan as a person and his "46" defensive scheme, was such a phenomenal and complete look at a team that will never be replicated. Its structure is much looser, flowing through integral pieces and storylines of the team, at one point talking about "The Super Bowl Shuffle," which was recorded two months before the regular season even concluded, while looking at the fanatics that took the famous Saturday Night Live skit known as the "Superfans" of the Chicago Bears to a whole new level. If anything, it positions the external and subsequent factors of the '85 Bears better than the "30 for 30" documentary, but it still doesn't come off as cleanly edited. Only in moments does Charley Rivkin's editing really loan itself to the nature of the film, and those moments largely come at the end of the film, where the quick-shots find their rhythm in a documentary that feels like a loose compilation events rather than a cohesive whole.
Nonetheless, '85: The Greatest Team in Football History will be fruit for fans who can't get enough of their favorite team, even if they've seen everything before. One of the last things that dawned on me about the '85 Bears as a whole was how we view them despite modern contexts. Today, we are critical of teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers, who have proven to be emotionally run franchises with explosive players and head coaches that gravitate towards being a "player's coach." The '85 Bears were grossly arrogant and sometimes toxic in their masculine grit, but at the same time, they got things done and gave a city that doesn't get a lot to cheer about something to rally behind. Forgiving missteps, Prestin knows how to capture the importance of the '85 Bears to the city of Chicago, and that's where being a local boy really counts.