Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows is one of the best documentaries about anything ever. It follows Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s last year in the WWF in 1997, as the promotion battles Ted Turner’s WCW in the ratings and the rise of antiheroes makes Hart’s status as wrestling’s number one good guy precarious. Like so many of my favorite documentaries, Wrestling with Shadows is about something narrow—vividly capturing a specific, strange moment in the history of professional wrestling—in a way that grasps towards the universal, telling a moving human story. Like so many of my favourite documentaries, I can’t believe how much the filmmakers totally lucked out in being there to capture this story. Yet Wrestling with Shadows tends to get slotted into the category “wrestling documentary” as a kind of ghetto. The assumption by wrestling fandom and the general public alike that it could only appeal to existing wrestling fans is self-fulfilling: Only wrestling fans end up watching it, proving that it could only appeal to existing wrestling fans.
It would be really generous to describe me as a “casual wrestling fan”. I’m into wrestling in much the same way that I was into skateboarding in the early 2000s, in that I enjoy thinking about it and listening to people talk about it without quite making the leap to doing anything about it. Yet Wrestling with Shadows hooked me completely. It’s a great story brilliantly told. I know enough about wrestling to understand that it’s extraordinary that it exists at all: That Vince McMahon, a man so maniacally controlling that he sometimes doesn’t let anyone in WWE call wrestling “wrestling”, gave the filmmakers this level of access to tell a story he couldn’t steer, gives the whole thing a precious quality, like catching sight of a rare exotic bird.
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Wrestling with Shadows opens shortly before the infamous Montreal Screwjob. Bret tells us how much he loves playing the hero, that he’s so proud of developing the Hitman character, and that he might as well shoot his brains out as lose his title to Shawn Micheals. “They talk about wrestling not being real,” Bret says, “It’s far more real than people think.” You can hear the emotion in his voice as he hangs his head.
Then we cut to Vince McMahon talking about it in an interview, voice ice cold and eyes steely. “I have no sympathy for Bret Hart. None,” he says, “I have no sympathy for someone not doing the right thing for the business that made him… Bret screwed Bret. I have no sympathy whatsoever for Bret.” The stakes are clear: this is an epic story about good versus evil, both on the mat and off.
The film then flashes back a year to show us how we got here. So much of wrestling is the delineation of good guys from bad guys—of faces from heels—but in the 1990s, morally ambiguous antiheroes were on the rise. Audiences cheered heels and powered them to the top of the promotion. If wrestling fans are willing to cheer a heel like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bret Hart’s good guy routine starts to look like a relic of an older era. The world has turned and left him here. So—with a great deal of uneasiness, and in some ways, against his better judgment—he turns heel. But only in America.
Bret is Canadian, and so the Hitman starts spouting anti-American stuff to rile up the crowd and generate boos. “Last week, I said the United States of America was one big giant toilet bowl,” he says in the ring, “And if you were going to give the United States of America an enema, you’d stick the hose right here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” (Bret says later that in retrospect it was a “mistake to say that”.)
But in Canada and the rest of the world, he remains a hero, a status only reinforced by what makes him a villain in the States. “Canada is a country where we still take care of the sick and the old,” he tells his home city of Calgary, “We still have healthcare. We got gun control, we don’t shoot each other and kill each other on every street corner. Canada isn’t riddled with racial prejudice and hatred.” It’s a fascinating double existence. He pulls off this dual role by leveraging America’s status as a heel to the rest of the world. America’s cultural dominance is turned against itself: He reaps the benefits of the WWF’s global stage and turns the barrel back at the very forces that allows them to reach the whole planet.
The documentary doesn’t just show how the WWF and the Hitman character got here, but how Bret Hart got here. We learn about his childhood and meet his family. Bret got into wrestling because of his father Stu Hart: He raised all his sons to be wrestlers, and all his daughters married wrestlers. When Bret was growing up, Stu would take aspiring wrestlers to the basement and torture them until they begged for mercy. Eventually his sons would be taken down to the basement, too. “I remember my dad squeezing me so hard that the blood vessels would burst behind my eyeballs… You’d be screaming, begging for your life, which Lord knows I did on numerous occasions,” Bret says, “My dad was always screaming in my ear, ‘you’ve breathed your last breath’, and I can remember that ringing in my ears lots of times and thinking, ‘I probably have.’”
Bret clearly loves and admires his dad—he says that he isn’t a sadist or a psychopath, “just a big, gentle, loving guy”—but Wrestling with Shadows has enough distance to see things a little clearer. The lightness with which Bret talks about his childhood doesn’t counteract the distressing content so much as double it over. The Hart boys tell a story about hearing screaming coming from the basement, and their laughs and smiles just make it all the more disturbing.
This approach—of letting the audience piece together things that Bret is too close to see—is the same the film takes towards Bret’s other father figure: Vince McMahon. Bret clearly sees Vince as a mentor and a father figure, and is fiercely loyal to both him and the WWF. He turns down a much more lucrative contract with rival WCW in favour of signing a 20-year contract with the WWF. But we’ve seen Vince give his supervillain speech about how he has no sympathy for Bret Hart. It makes the audience hyper-aware of every red flag that Bret remains oblivious to: projecting a deep personal connection onto a relationship that Vince views as strictly business. Vince strings him along, perfectly willing to exploit Bret’s loyalty as long as he keeps printing money. And once he’s not valuable any more, he’s perfectly willing to screw him over.
I was vaguely aware of the Montreal Screwjob before I watched Wrestling with Shadows, but there’s a world of difference between listening to someone quickly sketch the broad outlines and watching it play out. Bret is moving to WCW after being effectively forced out of the WWF, as Vince decides to pull the 20-year contract shortly after it’s agreed to. Since he’s the current champion, it needs to be decided what will happen to the title when he leaves. Even though Vince said he could leave any way he wanted—even though Bret’s contract says he has reasonable creative control over his last thirty days—Vince then insists that he loses the title to Shawn Michaels in Montreal. “If you want me to drop the belt, I’ll drop the belt,” Bret tells him, “But not in Canada.”
It’s agreed that the match in Montreal will end in a draw. But when Shawn Michaels has Bret in a submission hold, the referee rings the bell prematurely, declaring Michaels the winner. The whole movie is a succession of Vince’s betrayals, but even forcing Bret out of the WWF was one of a thousand tiny cuts compared to this, a vicious stab right through the heart. It’s horrible. It’s heartbreaking. Bret’s stipulations in the face of everything Vince pulled were almost pathetically modest—he’ll drop the belt, just not in Canada—but Vince wouldn’t let him have even that. Bret spits in his face in front of the television cameras.
Vince hides away in his office, and Bret marches in and punches him. It’s a satisfying catharsis, but just as good is Bret’s wife confronting Shawn Michaels and his tag team partner Triple H, insisting that they knew this was going to happen and should be ashamed of themselves. As much as they claim to have known nothing about it, their heads are bowed, and they look impossibly cowardly.
Wrestling with Shadows is a documentary caught between worlds. On one side, there’s a mainstream press that has so little respect for wrestling that in order to write about a wrestling documentary, they need to bury it in a bunch of hand-wringing to legitimise wrestling as a topic of discussion at all. An otherwise excellent review in The Independent still feels the need to overcome their readers’ “disdain for the fans packing the stadiums to cheer and boo at mock violence”. On the other end, there’s a wrestling fandom for whom Wrestling with Shadows is more a historical record than a movie, telling a story they already know through osmosis.
But Wrestling with Shadows deserves so much more than that.