Many of the best documentaries made are as much a documentary as a showcase for something that is perhaps enjoyed by the few and ignored by (or unknown to) the many. The documentary film maker has the luxury therefore of showing the world what they are missing provided they structure their narrative correctly and make their subject interesting and exciting.
A League of Ordinary Gentlemen is about ten pin bowling which, as the film quotes, is the most participated in past time in America. It is therefore well known to the general public already and, you would think, loved by all making it a great topic for a documentary. The reality is that when it comes to high level and professional bowling, there is a certain stigma attached to being a bowler and plenty of derision to be endured by those who devote their time to it. Where this comes from is unclear but perhaps the sport is almost too accessible and therefore if anyone can do it, being the best at it is worth less than, say, being Tiger Woods or Roger Federer.
What A League of Ordinary Gentlemen needed to do then clearly was showcase the skill involved in being the best bowler in the world, and also make it look exciting to light a fire under it as a credible sport. By following the pro bowling league for a year, it tries to do this but comes up very short by getting the narrative all wrong.
Rather than focus on the origins of bowling and showing how it grew to be one of the most watched TV shows of the 1960s and 70s, A League of Ordinary Gentlemen starts in the modern era explaining that with ratings taking a consistent nose dive in the last 30 years, the pro bowling association is on its knees and facing closure. Thrown the lifeline of some ex-Microsoft investors who are keen to reinvigorate it, the documentary picks up the story from about this point to follow its rebirth into the American mainstream.
The tour bowlers featured in A League of Ordinary Gentlemen are a good cross section – you have the washed up and troubled former star still trying to make good, the two top bowlers in the nation and the up and coming young star who is making a name for himself on the tour. It is the top two bowlers who command much of the running time – one a brash, abrasive and arrogant guy who is the son of one of the all time great bowlers and the other a mild mannered and likeable guy who goes about his business without running his mouth and upsetting people.
Whilst this element of A League of Ordinary Gentlemen is good and provides a nice insight into the lives of bowling on the tour, at no point is bowling ever made to look remotely exciting. It is perhaps a difficult thing to achieve to make bowling exciting but they do not even try, nor do they show just how hard it is to hook bowl like the professionals do rather than the standard “bowl it straight and hope for the best” style of the layman. By missing this vital element, and not considering the roots of bowling, the viewer is thrust into a very negative environment of an unpopular sport and inevitably this does not make for compelling viewing as there is nothing to really root for.
A League of Ordinary Gentlemen is an opportunity missed and anyone going into this with no interest in bowling is likely to emerge on the other side with a totally unchanged view. Half a star could perhaps be added for bowling enthusiasts but otherwise this is pretty missable stuff.