The urge to quantify excellence, to crack it open and define it, is why so many sports fanatics focus on numbers and data. But Gabe Polsky’s documentary “In Search of Greatness,” a worshipful big-think built around original, what-made-you-tick interviews with hockey’s “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky, football legend Jerry Rice, and soccer god Pele, sees a more helpful conversation in examining creative freedom, behavior, non-conformity, and philosophy.
There’s an open bemoaning of our current vogue for leeching the fun out of an athletically driven child’s playtime, and systematizing the search for the next greats through overscheduling, roteness, and slavishness to statistics. These superstars don’t deny the parts played by luck, ability, practice, and great coaching, but what’s also clear to them is how important it was to keep alive their playful desire, imagination (Gretzky would watch hockey games and trace where the puck traveled on a piece of paper), and sense of personal style when it came to maximizing gametime prowess.
Further proof comes from the snapshots afforded Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan and Roger Federer — figures we speak on in artistic terms as much as athletic ones. As for Polsky’s own directorial style, it’s breathlessly, haphazardly eccentric, a little too prone to the clichés sports docs use to pump up our adrenaline. But his subjects — kings of the puck, the pigskin and the pitch — are engagingly self-analytical and honest, particularly Gretzky, who acknowledges athletes today are bigger and better than in his time, then adds with a knowing smile, “but that doesn’t make them smarter.”
‘In Search of Greatness’
Rated: PG-13, for brief language and some partial nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 2, AMC Century City