Movie Review: Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows

Image Source: IMDB

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Distributor: Vidmark/Trimark
Production Companies: A&E Television Networks, High Road Productions and Trimark Pictures
Director: Paul Jay
Producers: Paul Jay, Sally Blake, David M. Ostriker and Silva Basmajian (NFB)
Writer: Paul Jay
Main Cast: Bret Hart, Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels, Stu Hart, Julie Hart, Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart
Released: December 20 1998
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Certificate: E

Since it’s WrestleMania Week, this week’s retro movie review takes a slightly different approach by focusing on a wrestling-themed production, which is more of a documentary than a film; however, its reality-based content and gripping footage allows it to shine nonetheless.

Wrestling With Shadows tells the story of Bret Hart, at one point the WWF/WWE’s biggest star. He first became WWF Champ in 1992, and lost his third title to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XII in 1996. Shortly afterwards, Hart went on an extended vacation from wrestling, and pondered his future as WCW made him an offer; bear in mind that WCW was now overtaking the WWF in terms of popularity. It is around this time, in autumn 1996, when Bret chooses to stay in the WWF that the documentary begins to tell its narrative.

Director Paul Jay and his crew were hoping to follow the life of a WWF wrestler, and a very popular one, outside the ring so that fans could get a feel of their real-life persona, mixed in with footage shot at the family home, and of stories going back to the early days of Bret’s career. Along the way, we get to see backstage footage of WWF events (a novelty at the time), and a chance to see how storylines impact upon a character’s real-life (Bret turned into an anti-American heel in 1997, albeit one who still remained, in his words, “very pro-Canadian”, leading to a divide on loving and hating the man based on where fans lived).

That was the intention, anyway. But during the timeline of filming, things changed.

For Bret would be leaving for WCW in late 1997, reluctantly it must be said, because apparently the WWF could no longer afford Bret’s contract due to financial difficulties. Bret said in his autobiography Hitman that as production of the documentary was still ongoing, he thought it would be a good idea to allow Paul Jay and company to film his final few weeks in the WWF.

It is fascinating to see Bret’s clear desire to stay in the WWF being overruled by the wishes of Vince McMahon, the apparent money troubles in the WWF and the change to more adult-orientated content on Raw and WWF PPV events. But it pales in comparison to the elephant in the room: Bret is leaving, not long after Survivor Series 1997, but remains WWF Champion. And with SS being in Canada, where Bret is genuinely idolised, losing the crown there to his real-life enemy Shawn Michaels is a combination too emotionally strong for the Hitman to overcome. So, he suggests to Vince (as captured here) for a DQ finish to his match with Michaels in Montreal, and for him to vacate the title the next night on Raw and leave on a positive note (he was still an anti-American villain, remember). McMahon agrees, and so Bret goes into Survivor Series and his last major match for the WWF after 13 years in the company.

But in the body of the match, Michaels locks a Sharpshooter on Bret; however, while Bret tries to reverse the move as planned, referee Earl Hebner calls for the bell, as advised from a stationed-at-ringside Vince and Michaels himself. Bret had been robbed of the WWF Title for real; the Montreal Screwjob had taken place.

Bret is clearly fuming, and post-match footage shows Vince leaving the arena with a black eye and a limp from a Bret punch (the fight itself is not on camera; imagine if it had), and Bret’s then-wife Julie admonishing Triple H, who pretends to have had no involvement in the whole saga. Michaels on camera lies to Bret by saying he had no participation in it either. In Bret’s mind, subsequent Raw footage of Vince saying that “Bret screwed Bret” and of DX mocking a midget Bret proves otherwise. The documentary ends with Bret reflecting on his poor treatment by the WWF and suggesting that heroes are no longer accepted, only anti-heroes.

The story of why Montreal happened and who was right and wrong is too great to go into here; I will write about it in-depth in the future. For this review, the purpose is to show that what began as a basic scope of a WWF wrestler’s lifestyle turns into a production that shows the true story of the most controversial incident in wrestling history. It is truly real-life; Bret cannot hide his emotions towards the end, and the events of November 9 1997 genuinely weakened Bret for many years. Before Montreal, the documentary is a nice look at the backstage goings-on and home life of a top WWF star; when it comes to covering Montreal, though, it is as gripping as any production on any sports event that you will ever see.

Jay would later comment that he wanted to humanise Vince more, so that he wouldn’t come across as the villain and may have been able to have his say (outside of his comments shortly afterwards on Raw). As it is, we only see and hear Bret’s side of events; having the opposite set of opinions would have made coverage of the incident even more powerful. Still, that wasn’t going to happen in the late 1990s, when wrestling was only occasionally noted to be entertainment, and since this was essentially a Bret Hart documentary and not a WWF one.

So, the crew inadvertantly captured the events leading up to the most talked-about incident ever in wrestling, and of the moment itself and its aftermath. For that, Wrestling With Shadows is essential viewing for any wrestling fan, but the documentary would still have been engaging without the events that led to Bret’s departure from the WWF. As a total package, though, Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows is a brilliant documentary and a must-see for all followers of the world of professional wrestling.

Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding