Jeremy Lin’s high school basketball career is the kind of comeback underdog sports story that Hollywood loves. In his junior year he blew an amazing, star-making season by spraining his ankle on the eve of the championship. Then, as a senior he made up for that injury by leading his Palo Alto Vikings in a return to the finals and ultimately to victory over the nationally ranked “Goliath” team from Mater Dei.
Of course, if Hollywood were to isolate that part of Lin’s biography for a narrative film, chances are the main character wouldn’t be of Taiwanese descent. There would be a whitewashing of characters similar to what we saw with 21, the 2008 movie about card counting MIT students. Yet it’s also difficult to imagine Lin getting the full biopic treatment. Not to equate Lin’s achievement to Jackie Robinson’s, but this country isn’t ready for an Asian-American 42.
That’s not okay, but for now Linsanity will more than suffice. The documentary takes us through the life of the NBA sensation from childhood to the end of his 2011–2012 season with the Knicks, which made him a household name — in part thanks to the media’s attention on his ethnicity as much as on his talent, but mostly thanks to the catchy puns on his name, such as the one used for this doc’s title. Let’s be glad it’s not called any number of other actual headline-inspiring choices, such as “Linning Streak” or “Linderella Story.”
“Linsanity,” of course, is the most popular term concocted for the point guard’s boom with and for New York as well as the fandom that arose with his sudden success. And the curiosity it spawned in people who don’t regularly pay attention to basketball probably continues for the film. The great thing about a doc like this is that it’s very accessible and entertaining for the casual or non sports fans. You’ve got your likable hero, your universally relatable narrative ups and downs, with inspiring accomplishments and despairing obstacles, and the game itself is illustrated through the most comprehensible and awe-inspiring plays, a highlight reel as movie montage.
And Linsanity isn’t necessarily a sports movie, nor is it solely about Lin and his struggles to go pro. It’s also a heavy reminder of how racially minded we are in the U.S. That’s not just the outright racism, although the doc certainly addresses over and over the implication that Lin’s skill was consistently dismissed by owners and coaches because he didn’t “fit the mold,” plus the more direct verbal abuse he’s received from players and spectators throughout his life. Linsanity opens on the subject telling a story of security guards at Madison Square Garden not believing he was a player, and director Evan Leong holds onto that theme of ignorance for the rest of film.
Yet he also acknowledges more positive ideas regarding racial consciousness, particularly in terms of self-identification and community. Shared background even factored into the decision for Leong and producer Christopher Chen to begin documenting the then-unknown Lin way back when he was still at Harvard (he only graduated in 2010, but the film understandably makes the next two years feel like a very long journey for its subject). And it must have been related to the employment of Korean-American TV actor Daniel Dae Kim (Lost; Hawaii Five-0) as the superfluous narrator. While the film recognizes Lin’s popularity with Asians as it negatively led to his exploitation for merchandising purposes, there’s also still the matter of those fans having an identifiable hero and of his having a stronger support system and fanbase as a result.
There’s no denying that Lin is mostly notable for being the first Chinese-American to play in the NBA and for how he surprised the world by being so great at a sport not known for having a lot of Asian players. No matter who directed a documentary about him, that would be the foundation and the angle. It’s worth considering, though, what parts of Linsanity were made before the “Linsanity” began, how the project was already obviously focused on Lin’s distinction and background, complete with an obligatory journey to Taiwan to show the subject exploring his roots.
Another interesting element is how Lin, in being the primary teller of his story (hence there being no need for Kim), is rather humble with regards to what he’s achieved on his own, citing his faith and God’s influence and a “perfect formation” of events as part of what got him there, in addition to the hard work and talent. There was also that fortuitous personal connection to the man who would become owner of the Warriors who surely helped him on the road.
Not that the doc itself ever really downplays Lin’s own strengths and accomplishment. Linsanity is an almost embarrassingly hagiographic film, the kind that piles in the whole family of the subject to celebrate his existence from birth and share loving anecdotes. Lin may himself be the only one to provide any criticism, noting the ego he had as a youth (which God punished with the sprain) and awareness and analysis of what made him perform badly in specific games.
Leong knows best to let his subject come off as smart and knowing, matching what the filmmaker does with the doc overall as more than merely a puff profile with a general sprinkling of the intolerance factor. Leave that simplicity, even if there’s some greater dab of dramatic dimension to Lin’s character to it, for the far-off biopic.
Linsanity is now playing in limited release. For details check the film’s website.