There are some figures that are simply larger than life. In the case of André the Giant, this is true as both a metaphor and literal statement. Born André René Roussimoff in a small French town in 1946, the man quickly became an icon of pop culture. The journey to become that icon is documented in HBO’s new documentary “André the Giant,” directed by Jason Hehir and produced by Bill Simmons. The interesting thing about the documentary is that is not simply focused on the André. Instead, it examines how instrumental a figure André became in popularizing wrestling in the 1970s and 1980s. In doing so, the film works as an exploration of a misunderstood man, as well as a backdoor history of wrestling in popular culture.
It quickly becomes clear how important André the Giant is to wrestling, simply by looking at the names who give time for the documentary. Important figures from wrestling come out in droves. One of his closest friends, Hulk Hogan is heavily featured in the documentary. Jerry Lawler, Ric Flair, and Vince McMahon give incredibly emotional testimony about André’s ability and friendship. We’re given a peek behind the curtain of a man who became myth. Everyone is here to spill their love for André, and it’s clear from moment one how important he was to each of their lives. Each debunks myths about him, provides solid facts and tells humorous stories. We spend a little too much time with the subplot about the WWF, but it’s an interesting story in explaining the phenomenon of André.
As André grows larger as a pop culture figure, the film explains his medical condition. André is diagnosed with acromegaly, the disease that causes the body to continually grow. This led to André’s massive size of 7’4″ and over 500 lb weight. It also meant that his body could not support his massive size, leading to health issues. André’s size also caused him to drink far more than the average man, including 24 beers a day.
The physical toll begins to mount quickly on André. There’s a shot of his left leg towards the end of the film where you see upwards of 5 scars from surgeries to his knees and calves. His body begins to break down and the health issues begin to pile up. Despite being one of the most astounding athletes of the 1970s and 1980s, time catches up with all athletes. It’s a sad decline that gives the audience a profound understanding of what he went through on a day to day basis.
Of course, the film covers “The Princess Bride” even if only for 5 minutes. The coverage of the film simultaneously works to show the peak of André’s career, yet show him as he begins to deteriorate. Carey Elwes, Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, and Rob Reiner all tell great stories. Yet each is sad in its own way. This adds a new level to the iconic performance that will undeniably change what you see when you view this film in years to come.
One of the ways in which Hehir really excels is with the original material he constructs for the film. Hehir’s use of pop music and symphonic scores in the film is extremely strong. There are perfectly timed cues throughout the picture that help transition us through storylines. The score, especially early in the film, is astounding. It ramps up the tension and gives the overall film a larger than life feel. Combined with quick edits and perfect voice-over, there is an electricity to the film that carries through many of the storylines. The camera work in the film is also above your average film. The team travels to André’s hometown in France, resulting in surprisingly beautiful cinematography for any documentary, let alone a sports doc. It’s a well put together film and should make anyone excited for whatever Hehir chooses to do next.
Overall, “André the Giant” is one of the best sports documentaries of the past few years. Simmons, well known for being one of the creators of “30 for 30,” continues his hot streak here at HBO. Even for those uninitiated in the history of the WWF/WWE or André the Giant’s career, this was an exciting ride. André passed away 25 years ago this year. Yet his legacy and the myths that surround him are as interesting as ever. This is a special film in understanding that myth and should be a must-watch for any sports fan.