ESPN’s documentary strand has produced some classic films. One thinks of the rather splendid Four Days In October about the miracle of the Boston Red Sox’s comeback from 3-0 down in the 2004 ALCS. But whilst that film shows the glory of what sport can do to a city Hillsborough shows what must rank as one of world sport’s darkest days: from the simple fact of 96 people dying watching a football match to the cover-up of what really happened that April day in 1989 that followed for more than 20 years.
You can’t yet watch Hillsborough in the UK. It’s taken twenty-five years to get an inquiry that might finally unearth the truth – or, at least given how much is now accepted as fact even before the inquiry opens, hold those responsible for what happened to account. There’s very little need to rehearse all over again the mechanics of the tragedy. Hillsborough, like virtually every ground at the time, was a nonsense venue. Spectators held in pens built by people with no understanding of crowd control or escape routes. South Yorkshire Police as an organisation more concerned with holding back the plebian masses than with proper event management. No stewarding. Lessons from previous events passing unlearnt.
So the film has all that. What is also has, through both on-the-day and archive footage, and clever use of photographs to show how the ground was set up, is the specifics. Why the crowd built as it did, how it came to be in the central pens at the Leppings Lane end, and so on. It also, damningly, shows the views the SYP had and how their reactions might be interpreted as being wholly inappropriate for the gathering storm. Let’s leave it at that.
There are first-hand accounts from survivors and relatives – and some sympathetic voices from bobbies doing their job. If you can make it past 45 minutes in without needing to pause you’ll have done well. There is harrowing but vital to see footage of the dying and injured being treated on the field – whilst the police form a line to prevent the non-existent threat of hooliganism from occurring. There’s no outside narrative voice but the talking heads lead us through all the salient points.
We then move on to the deliberate besmirching of the dead – even as some of them were possibly still breathing. One fan, interviewed here, loses it for a moment when speaking about how ‘The Truth’ portrayed them. But it’s their collective dignity in the face of this bullshit that will stick with you.
There’s two hours of this and it’s a fucking hard watch. On a popular video sharing site it’s currently split into 7 parts. I could only make it through by watching one part at a time and then having a breather. Even typing about it and thinking back to it leaves me reeling slightly.
It ends about as positively as this disgraceful episode ever could. The independent inquiry totally exonerating the fans and opening up a new inquiry – one that might just not take the Establishment line but which it is doubtful whether will lead to any true justice.
Credit to ESPN for this film. They didn’t have to make it. Credit also to the measured way in which Daniel Gordon’s direction brings out the story. It appears to have been pretty well received in the States even though for them Hillsborough must be soccer pre-history. Hopefully one day we’ll get to see it on TV in the UK. The voices from that day deserve to be heard and never forgotten.