With  “Sue Bird: In The Clutch,” documentarian Sarah Dowland aims to give WNBA basketball legend Sue Bird — who in her 21-year professional career is the oldest player in the league, and its most accoladed — her own version of “The Last Dance.” However, by cramming several decades worth of achievements into 98 minutes, Dowland’s film is ultimately nothing more than a hagiographic Wikipedia summary, rather than a complex portrait of athletic genius. 

The oddly structured doc is bookend within Bird’s final season before retirement, then looks at Bird’s life through several lenses: her time as a student athlete, her career achievements in the WNBA and abroad, her experience with pay inequality as a female athlete, her journey towards coming out publicly after becoming engaged to U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, her work as an activist, and her part in the new collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA players and the league. Most of this happens concurrently, yet for some reason Dowland doesn’t thread these aspects of Bird’s life together, instead chooses to treat each as a separate segment, as if a life is led in thematic episodes, rather than all at once. 

The film is constructed with ample archival footage going all the way back to home videos of Bird playing youth soccer, her career highlights seen through game footage from her days playing high school ball at Christ the King, college ball at UConn, and her decades-long career at Seattle Storm. Aside from one massive loss during her time at UConn, which Dowland has Bird rewatch on an iPad a la  “The Last Dance,” most of what we see are Bird’s triumphs. Years of losses go by without so much as a word about what those down years were like. 

Bird herself offers some perspective on her career, though like the doc itself, she mainly focuses on what the good times were. The talking heads, which include her coaches, her family, and a select few teammates, also only paint a rosy picture of a hard worker who hates to lose. “Who am I without basketball?” Bird asks early on in the documentary. Apparently not much, though a few complex nuggets find their way into the edit. 

One startling sequence outlines how Bird and former UConn teammate Diana Taurasi went to play in Russia, where they could make nearly 10x their league salary, during the off season. After their Russian team’s sponsor Shabtai Kalmanovich is assassinated, Dowland cuts to Rebecca Lobo, a former WNBA player and current sports analyst, asking, “Do you feel okay being paid by someone who has probably done some nefarious and awful things to get their money?” This question is met with a cut to Bird sharing that she made great friends and enjoyed the experience, but that yes she went there for the money. Dowland uses this story to call attention to the pay disparity between players in the WNBA and the NBA. Which is an important issue, but are we then just meant to ignore those greater ramifications referenced by Lobo?

This speaks to the main problem at the heart of Dowland’s doc: it largely presents Bird’s career in a vacuum. Aside from the handful of teammates interviewed, Downland never puts Bird’s career into a greater context. Who are her peers? What was happening with the league as an entity in the decades that Bird played? Even her five appearances at the Olympics — in which she and Team America won five gold medals — are presented as standalone statics. Who did they compete against? What was the atmosphere like in the world during those games?

The last twenty minutes haphazardly fills in some of these gaps. When Bird’s relationship with fiancée Megan Rapinoe (the couple have since married) becomes the doc’s focus, we get a slightly better idea of who Bird is as a person. She shares what it felt like to be a queer athlete in the mid-2000s and how being with Rapinoe has helped her be more authentically herself, down to the clothes she now feels comfortable wearing. We see her organize the league in protest against the killing of Breonna Taylor. She tackles collective bargaining with the league on behalf of her fellow members in order to secure better pay and more nuanced benefits like maternity leave. Yet, even here much of the details are rushed in favor of glossy headlines over any real substance. 

This sequence ends with Bird’s agent saying “There are all these different layers to who she is. Ten years ago it was just too complicated. Today that’s authentic. That gives different populations and different communities multiple ways to connect with her.” While the aim of this statement was surely to express the progress society has seen over the last decade, it comes across more like a sales pitch for the new Sue Bird, still a product, but one that is more marketable now. 

Frustratingly, despite being jam-packed with facts, there is not much insight into what makes Bird tick, what makes her a great player, or what her legacy actually means to the sport. In the end, “Sue Bird: In The Clutch,” like so many biopic docs of late, is nothing more than a slickly edited, hermetically sealed, pre-packed, and pre-approved highlights reel. 

Grade: C

“Sue Bird: In the Clutch” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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