Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself Review
by Daniel Rester
George Plimpton was a remarkable individual who grabbed life by the horns. Like a real-life adventure hero, Plimpton had plenty of noteworthy experiences in his lifetime. As a participatory journalist, Plimpton involved himself with crazy situations and wrote from first-hand moments. He was one of the great journalists of the 20th century. Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, a new documentary on Plimpton’s life, reassures such an idea.
Himself paints a well-rounded picture of Plimpton’s life. After opening with a shot of Plimpton on a trapeze, the doc moves forward to discuss the man’s early life. It goes over how George grew up in New York and got kicked out of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Plimpton also later graduated from Harvard and Cambridge.
Plimpton joined the journal The Paris Review in 1953, and became very connected to it. Much of the film details how he struggled to keep the Review open and how he spent long hours there at times. The journal didn’t make much money during the years that Plimpton worked on it, and he even resorted to acting in ridiculous TV ads for money in order to help keep it open.
George enjoyed the ideas of writer Paul Gallico, who thought that one must really understand sports to write about them. Writing for Sports Illustrated and other works, Plimpton decided to participate in certain sports and then write about his experiences. The film chronicles how Plimpton was a last-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions, and how he wrote the 1966 book Paper Lion (his best-known book) about his experiences. It also talks about some of his other works, such as the 1961 book Out of My League. He also famously fought boxer Archie Moore, and blocked a shot by hockey player Reggie Leach, among his many involvements with sports.
But Plimpton didn’t just stick to sports. Himself discusses his other experiences, too. For instance, it touches on how he had a great admiration for Ernest Hemingway, how he was very close to the Kennedys, and how he would throw spur-of-the-moment parties for writers. Plimpton also played the triangle for a symphony, went on an African safari for Life Magazine, did stand-up comedy in Los Angeles, and had a bit part in a John Wayne movie.
While Plimpton got along well with many people throughout his life, he seemed to have had somewhat of a disconnect with his family (he was married twice in his life, and had four children). The film shows that he loved his family, but that he lived an isolated life among his extraordinary activities at times. There are lots of interviews and past footage of Plimpton and his family in Himself, with his son and others often reading some of George’s writing throughout the film. Such moments help to add a personal element to all of the information.
The film provides a ton of images and often sets them to uplifting Ukulele music. It employs the Ken Burns effect too often, but the still images themselves (mixed with beautifully grainy old footage) are amazing to look at. One standout shot has fireworks moving around in George’s eyes in a still of when he was on the Lions. The film also has a nice sense of pacing, providing for a short and sweet documentary as a whole.
Some saw Plimpton as a dilettante, but the film explores how he liked to “become his subjects” and that he believed, “you become what you want to become” – whether it be in a professional or participatory manner. When Plimpton died at the age of 76 in 2003, he had inspired many writers with his participatory journalism – writing hundreds of articles and over thirty books in his lifetime.
Himself should please both fans of Plimpton and those who don’t know much about him. I have touched on some of what the film holds, but it discusses much more than just those things. It is a satisfactory (and sometimes funny) and educational documentary, telling the story of a man who lived like no other. It’s not an exceptional doc, but it is worth a look.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B).