Intensity, Integrity, and Intelligence.
The above phrase can mean a lot of different things to different people. However, if you’re the sort that remembers when the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) was the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), then these three Is may just bring you back to a specific period of time, specifically what’s known as the Attitude Era in which the likes of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Kurt Angle ruled the square circle. These performers and many others brought countless audiences at arenas and in homes to their feet multiple nights a week with outrageous feats of physical strength combined with some truly ridiculous storytelling. That era was, truly, electrifying to behold. In his latest project, documentarian Alex Perry (Biography: Kurt Angle) explores the life of one such individual, Kurt Angle, whose three Is were part of his All-American schtick on stage, yet also represented the man himself, whose drive and sacrifice took him all the way to Olympic gold in 1994, via the film ANGLE.
In any documentary, there’s a set of known-knowns and unknown-knowns with the potential of discovering something neither the filmmaker nor subject expected. Using a mixture of archived news interviews, personal footage, materials from the WWE, present-day talking head interviews, and more, Perry takes the audience through a guided tour of Angle’s life from birth to present day. Now, Perry himself is not part of this documentary, we do not see him or hear him, rather it’s Angle himself who serves as proxy, presenting questions that set up a moment in his history for others to comment on or describe or answering them as established by others. This approach creates a natural rhythm as one story flows into another, capturing on celluloid a broader picture of the man most may see as little more than an entertainer.
Now, for those unaware, Angle’s WWE persona, like all the good ones, is based on some truth, and the first 50ish minutes delve into this. This is a smart move by Perry as others might try to race to get to Angle’s WWE period faster in order to delve into the flashy and often fun parts of the pro wrestler’s career, despite the great pains that came with it. What makes it smart is that we, the audience, come to understand Angle’s psychology just a bit more by learning how he grew up as one of five children in Pittsburg, PA, and played numerous sports, excelling in football. How it was the push from his father, David, to go to training camps that set up his mentality to strive for the things he wants with his whole body. It was this mentality that, even after his father’s untimely passing, upon transitioning to wrestling in high school and building a passion for it, that he set his sights on being the best there was, crafting a course for the Olympics that would crush anyone else not mentality ready. Through the stories from his brothers and archived interviews from his mother, past training partners, and others, Perry delicately traces Angle’s journey, including tribulations involving the loss of his father, the loss of his mentor David Schultz (who was murdered by millionaire philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont), breaking his neck during the ’96 U.S. Open ahead of the Olympic trials, and further injuring himself as he battled for the gold medal, which he did win in the 1996 Olympics. Perry doesn’t treat any of this as merely facts to be stated or handed out, interspersing news footage and still frames (as appropriate) so we can actually see what happens, edited in just such a way that we can almost feel the impact of what’s happened. This becomes important later as the story shifts into what a lifetime of bumps, tears, scrapes, and breaks do to Angle physically and psychologically, leading to a drug addiction that nearly took his career, family, and legacy from him.
Based on an article published by Matt Black, September 2nd, 2023, ANGLE wasn’t originally intended as a Peacock documentary, but was released as such because WWE acquired the film. This is worth mentioning because ANGLE began as an independent picture and the presentation on Peacock does feel strangely produced, as though it was shifted or altered somehow in post-production. To be clear, I’m not speaking to the content of the documentary, so much as the technical aspects related to the presentation. There are several moments, especially in the first hour, where the audio mix is off, the score being louder than the interviewees or the subject. Several times in the film, the image cuts straight to black before coming back, sometimes in a new place, sometimes continuing on, suggesting that this version was made for TV broadcast and is fitting in commercial breaks. What really seems to suggest this is the blurring of middle fingers by two interviewees (you can guess at least one of them) and the bleeping of a word that’s barely a curse, which is strange for a streaming platform to do. None of the above detracts from the information or the emotional response Kurt’s story elicits, but they are odd enough occurrences to distract in the moment.
It’s worth noting that Perry’s approach in ANGLE is accessible whether you’re a sports fan, a wrestling fan, a WWE fan, or none of the above. Everything you really need to know is laid out in such a way and edited together to create strong momentum and engagement with what we’re being told. In my case, I’m old enough to have watched the WWF Saturday cartoon and the WCW vs. WWF years, becoming a fan of both the original Sting design and the Steiner Brothers around the time I joined my high school wrestling team (following in the footsteps of my brothers, my father, and my uncle). Though I stopped watching for a few years, in undergrad I got back into it thanks to a friend and co-worker, right around the time the Attitude Era was in full swing. So I got to see the aforementioned wrestlers through down during Raw and Smackdown, or, at the very least, heard about it afterward. Thanks to my time on the mat, I knew that what these entertainers were doing wasn’t wrestling proper, but it required something that those collegiate and competitive athletes couldn’t understand – battling each other without the help of a ref or coach upon injury because the show goes on. As we learn in ANGLE, Kurt did far more than he should have, putting his dedication ahead of himself to dangerous degrees. Thankfully, Perry doesn’t shy away from this; rather, he pushes the camera further in, making the mistakes as seemingly inescapable for us to learn about as they were for Kurt to experience. Luckily, ANGLE comes with a happy ending of sorts (the subject is our guide, after all, so he’s still standing), wrapping in such a way that, if we weren’t already on Team Angle, we are now.
Through it all “Intensity, Integrity, and Intelligence” hangs over the film, a mantra that’s as much a positive force for Kurt as it is a negative. Therefore, the lesson, if one could consider it for a moment, from ANGLE is that to achieve greatness, one must be willing to make sacrifices, but one must also know when to pull back. Pushing through can get you to extraordinary places, but it can also push you over the edge into a bottomless precipice with no return. A good life-lesson from the All-American Man.
Available on Peacock September 2nd, 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.