When I settled in to take a look at Nimrod Nation, an eight-part documentary series that aired beginning in 2007 on the Sundance Channel, I expected to sit still for an episode or two before deciding when and whether to continue. To my not-inconsiderable surprise, I devoured the first four episodes in a single afternoon, took down two more in the evening, and finished out the package the following morning. Taken as a whole, Nimrod Nation is not a great documentary, but it’s a friendly and unassuming collection of days in the life that gets big points for compulsive watchability.
The original Nimrod was a Mesopotamian king described in the Bible as a mighty hunter, and it’s his status as an outdoorsman that led the people of Watersmeet, a town of about 1500 people in the frigid, snow-centric Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to adopt “Nimrod” as the nickname for its high-school basketball team. As depicted in Nimrod Nation, the people of Watersmeet love to hunt — or maybe it’s not simply that they love it as much as it’s just the way things are done. Even as a kid I was more city slicker than outdoorsman, but my family knew how to hunt jackrabbit and catch catfish, and I recognized the efficiency and pride with which the Zelinski family skins, guts and slices up a given animal. Animal lovers will cringe, but there’s a terrific scene at the end of the first episode involving the almost ritualistic execution of a hog that’s been fattened for the slaughter — and the malfunctioning handgun that one of the local kids is using to try and take the big friendly thing down. (I had to look away from the screen before it was over.) It’s a great image in part because you can feel the filmmakers triangulating its significance: the unremarkable reality of the situation, the relationship of the documentarians to the event itself, and the (presumed) discomfort of the home viewer.
Ostensibly a sports documentary, Nimrod Nation is at its best when it’s able to extract that kind of vivid, revealing, and/or absurd moment from the lives of these smalltowners. Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture; Chicago 10) apparently earned the right to get up close and personal with the locals after he made a series of successful promos for ESPN that spotlighted the Nimrods. Morgen returned to Watersmeet the year after the Nimrods won a regional championship to chronicle the team’s effort at repeating that success.
For most of the show’s running time, the basketball games themselves are used as a backdrop, putting tiny slice-of-life stories in perspective. There’s the one about basketball coach George Peterson’s son, who gets the brunt of his dad’s color commentary during practice. There’s the one about Brian Aimsback, a talented player whose grandmother feels he’s getting slighted because he’s Native American. And there’s the one about Nathan Vestich, the team’s loose cannon in residence, whose anger-management issues will become a problem before the end of the season. The basketball games become a more and more important part of the story leading into the final episodes, which ratchet up the big-game suspense in fairly conventional ways.
I liked Nimrod Nation best when it stayed off the court, though — considering a cheerleader’s aspiration of finding a better life in (slightly) warmer climes as a Wisconsin cosmetologist, sitting in on the chatty, self-assured conversations of the old guys hanging out mornings at the local diner, or eavesdropping on the foul-mouthed insults the teenaged boys toss at each other across the surface of a frozen lake as they keep an eye on their little ice-fishing rigs with lines dropping through the ice. The fourth episode concludes with a party of high-schoolers hanging out around a bonfire blazing big and bright against the snowy Michigan landscape, and there’s something about that scene that becomes indescribably moving. Probably it’s the manipulative effect of the oddly mournful music score, which becomes a liability elsewhere in the series (sometimes it feels like it’s running on an endless loop) but adds extra-compelling coming-of-age flavor in more moderate doses. But it also has to do with the way this scene functions as an important bookend for the footage of these kids’ elders, once potential participants in this kind of revelry, now relegated to spectatorship. (One day, the teenagers will be aged spectators, too, watching a new generation of youngsters from the outside.)
Despite that kind of universal profundity, Nimrod Nation eventually feels a mite superficial. It has breadth but little depth, delivering narrative sweep minus the kind of fly-on-the-wall detail that adds emotional nuance. It’s entertaining in the range of its vignettes (if you don’t like one story thread, just hang on five minutes to pick up another one), but I was never sure how far I could trust its portrayal of the gentle people of Watersmeet, who come across as kind and generous and lavishly uncomplicated. They’re the best-case scenario for middle America, the kinds of simple folk that New York and California natives like to imagine living unpretentiously in the far reaches of places like Michigan, so far from Ikea and Starbucks. So, OK — this is essentially reality TV, feel-good programming with a deliberately narrow scope of inquiry. Within those limitations, it’s awfully compelling stuff. B