In 2007, officers executing a warrant on NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s home in Virginia found signs of an extensive dog-fighting operation: pens where the dogs were kept, a platform where they were trained to fight, and burial sites where the “rollers,” i.e., the dogs who wouldn’t fight, were interred after Vick’s operation strangled or beat them to death.
Vick pled guilty to federal conspiracy charges. He was, at that time, the 27-year-old starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons and had thrown for 7,000 yards and 49 touchdowns over the previous three seasons.
That premise alone cries out for a documentary, and the fact that Bleacher Report took it on—with big ideas about new ways to tell the story—makes its premiere, serialized throughout this week, a major event. But does it succeed in telling Vick’s story?
Vick has been airing in 10-minute segments over the course of this week, and that’s the best way to experience it. Bleacher Report also invites you to watch “the full Vick documentary” on the Bleacher Report video app, where you can rip through the whole thing without interruption on your phone or tablet. Don’t do it.
The popular sports news site calls the film its first feature-length documentary, but that’s like calling Michael Phelps a pitchman for Subway sandwiches. It’s technically true, but come on. There’s a better foot to put forward here. Vick is a mediocre documentary, but it’s an exceptional—possibly genre-defining—docu-series with its full-tilt embrace of the smartphone platform and sharp execution of the short-form format.
A great documentary tells a can’t-look-away, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head story in a distinctive voice. Vick starts out with the makings of that: a present-day shot of Vick standing outside the gate of the house where his kennel operation turned dogs into killing machines. Too quickly, the dogs, and Vick himself, more or less disappear as interviews with coaches and teammates, game footage and archival photos take up the bulk of the running time.
When you watch Vick in its five constituent parts, though, the documentary stops veering from one topic to another every 10 minutes and becomes what it really wants to be: a series. Vick works much better as a docu-series like Netflix’s Making a Murderer or ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America. The fact that Making a Murder’s episodes are the length of the entirety of Vick or that O.J.: Made in America’s episodes are feature-length documentaries on their own is beside the point. The episode is the storytelling unit in both of those series, and the same is true of Vick.
Monday’s “Origins” segment is about his early years, Tuesday’s “Phenom” segment is about his college career, and so on. Instead of a film with no overall vision, it’s five shorter pieces that each have strong, focused takes on different phases of Vick’s life.
A smartphone is not a 46-inch HD display; it’s intimate and accessible. Vick makes good use of those attributes by keeping the composition uncluttered and shooting the interviews mostly in frame-filling close-ups. And it’s presented in short, contained segments that fit nicely into the daily YouTube snack breaks we all take.
Vick’s life has Shakespearean contours of fame, money, violence and royalty (well, sports royalty), but he doesn’t offer any new insight into his psychology or personal history. To his credit, he doesn’t make excuses or try to explain away his leading role in an underground dog-fighting scandal, but neither does he shed any light on why he did it.
The film has minimal original interview footage of Vick—much less than with former teammate Donovan McNabb, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beemer and others—and relies more on footage of Vick from press conferences and other appearances. The filmmakers told me through a Bleacher Report spokesperson that there were no conditions from Vick on discussing “his participation in Bad News Kennelz,” but he doesn’t discuss the dog-fighting at all—what drew him to it, whether he thought it was OK at the time and what kind of mark it made on him.
For a documentary called Vick in which Michael Vick cooperated and gave interviews, he’s weirdly absent. Even when he’s talking about things other than the dog-fighting scandal, he comes across more as dutiful participant than as someone who wants to tell his story. Vick was more candid in the 2009 60 Minutes interview, 2012 Piers Morgan Tonight interviews and in his 2012 memoir Finally Free. In all three forums, Vick talked about dog-fighting being part of the culture where he lived and about the guilt and lost opportunity he felt while he was in prison.
He’s explained his circumstances. He’s taken responsibility. He’s paid his debt to society. Like anyone who’d like to close that kind of chapter in his life, maybe he’s just said all he has to say about it.