WWE's wrestler documentaries create telling moments of hyperreality, where things become so real yet so obviously artificial that viewers can’t tell the difference.
The WWE Network fancies itself a real television network, something beyond just a collection of pro wrestling events arranged by year and promotion. The same impulse which led WWE to create Total Divas for E! is behind shows like Ride Along, which follows road buddies as they drive between towns for wrestling shows, and Holy Foley, a straightforward reality show starring Mick Foley and his family.
Every show WWE creates for its network is a means of humanizing its larger than life employees, as well as a part of a larger effort to achieve mainstream legitimacy and long-term financial viability. If the WWE Network is simply a collection of pay-per-views, then it's just a pro wrestling repository—something good but of limited scope, no matter how popular the form has and always will be. But a network filled with other stuff—you can find WWE-produced prank shows, reality shows, and slick-looking documentaries on the website—can make a pitch that it's something more.
The current crop of WWE docs resemble ESPN's 30 For 30 series in form and content: pick a wrestler, figure out what drives or eats at him or her, and tell a real story about that. It's been done for nearly every major pro wrestler on the roster at this point and they are, invariably, pretty decent documentaries which offer real insight into the people behind the wrestling characters. Pro wrestling is hard, despite the lingering derision, and hearing pro wrestlers talk about their very legitimate broken bones and torn knees brings that home.
But a very strange thing happens in these documentaries: WWE's obsessive need to control all the information going out of its doors creates moments of hyperreality, where things become so real yet so obviously artificial that we can't tell the difference. The documentaries aren't blanketed with these moments; they're brief and intrude like little sparks of light into the otherwise expected unfolding of these "normal" documentaries. But they're jarring when you notice them, a reminder that the world of pro wrestling's not-quite-reality can easily spill over its borders into the rest of our life and entertainment—documentaries by pro wrestlers today, politics by carnies tomorrow.
The most recent big documentary by WWE is Kurt Angle: Homecoming, a remarkable document of pro wrestling history and an extended, pointed example of what's best and worst about Vince McMahon and WWE. Every year, the WWE Hall of Fame inductions are accompanied, eventually, by a documentary or three about the biggest names inducted. This year, it's Kurt Angle.
Homecoming pulls no punches and doesn't let Angle shirk from the obvious: he was a remarkable wrestler as an amateur (he won an Olympic gold medal in 1996 with a legitimately broken neck), a remarkable pro wrestler, and then he was a drug addict. Pain pills, booze, Xanax—it was a murderer's row of pro wrestling supplements, necessitated by the fact that, when Angle was done, he'd suffered four broken necks. I may well be forgetting a fifth. That's staggering, and everything admirable about working through that came with a terrible cost to his health and personal life, which Angle freely admits.
Angle's story reminds you of Jake "the Snake" Roberts. Not in how low each man's rock bottom was—Roberts' lowest points were far closer to death than Angle's, at least that we know of—but in how exposed each man is when he wants to be. Roberts has always been very open in interviews and documentaries that he is manipulative and a liar, and that he is good at both for the exact same reason he was such a great pro wrestler: his willingness to let his emotions bleed through in the ring and on the mic. Not scripted, stilted emotions, but pure, full-on method acting surrender, pressed through a tiny pinprick of frustration at the core of his being.
"My wrestling character wasn't an act," Roberts told Sports Illustrated. "One of the reasons I was so good at doing interviews and coming up with storylines was because I learned to lie quickly. After you're sexually abused, you learn to lie quickly and constantly be on guard. As 'Jake the Snake,' I never wanted you to trust me. If you could trust me, then that meant our relationship was getting good."
Angle opens himself up, too. Not the way Roberts does as a liar, but rather, the way Roberts does as an actor. We hear about the pain the early death of Angle's father death caused the wrestler, and how much he carries that pain with him. Angle explains that he had the best matches of all time, from the end of his WWE career into his decade with TNA, because he wrestled like he was going to die—after so many neck problems, he thought he probably would. Every single match became his last, and he was damned if he was going to die after a stinker.
The emotion is real in the documentary, Angle's rawness makes it great. Last night on Monday Night Raw, he launched a new storyline about having an illegitimate son. The "son" is Jason Jordan, a pro wrestler with an amateur-to-professional career arc not unlike his own. As Angle recounted finding out about this "son," a grin appeared on his face and you would swear he was about to start laughing at the goofiness of this throwback, soap opera storyline. Instead, he ended up speaking with pride, smile beaming like a proud dad, and it was remarkably real in that brief moment. All because Angle was willing to tap an emotion inside him and let it out.
That honesty isn't total, however, and it gets a little weird when you pick up on where Angle's being coached by the WWE team. Remember: no matter what, this is a WWE production on the WWE Network for WWE purposes. Nobody has or ever will go on a WWE documentary and trash WWE or really question the wisdom of one of McMahon's decisions. And as good as Homecoming is, it holds to this formula.
You can see this when Angle talks about how he meets younger pro wrestlers and is happy to see the "sports entertainers" of the next generation, using a term which nobody has ever used without drilling by WWE's creative team. You can see it when Angle refers to McMahon as a father figure, which is almost certainly true but just as certainly sounds a little strange on the third repetition.
"I lashed out at Vince," Angle ruefully says at one point. "I lashed out at the company."
It's a strange equation of McMahon with the company and an admission that nobody knows where the man ends and the company begins. And it's public apology by way of documentary. Even if Angle feels this way—and there's no reason to believe he doesn't, because he did leave WWE on bad terms—there's something uncomfortable about what watching what seems to be part of an unwholesome arrangement which demanded public apology in order to get back in WWE's good graces. Angle also says, "it's nice to know Vince can forgive," and by that point it feels like we're moving past apologetics and into a pro wrestling struggle session.
This happens a lot, with little personal changes depending on who's doing it. And it reveals a couple things about how WWE works with McMahon at the helm. On the one hand, it is a sincerely good thing that McMahon doesn't believe in burned bridges. Outside of Jeff Jarrett—who held a title for ransom at the end of his contract for more money during the Monday Night Wars—there isn't anyone who isn't welcome back if there's money to be made.
Ultimate Warrior was an object of ridicule to WWE for two decades. He came back. Jesse Ventura, who was organizing a union in WWE—as cardinal a sin as there is for McMahon in his role as high priest of business owner facing capitalism—came back for a brief stint. Bret Hart, Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Eric Bischoff: the list of people who crossed Vince McMahon and who came back anyway to establish what seems to be good relationships with the man could go on for pages.
But there's always a sense that it has to be on McMahon's terms. It's always "McMahon forgave me", rarely "I forgave McMahon." And for that to be so public makes the welcome home feel uneasy, regardless of what comes after.
Early on in Homecoming, we see the camera crew follow Angle into McMahon's office. The men embrace before McMahon waves the crew away, telling them to get out. The expected documentary moment of the crew trying to find a way to listen doesn't happen. How could it? McMahon owns the cameras and pays the checks. The documentary isn't real, at least not in the sense that we think of documentaries are real. It's made for a few purposes which are at odds with each other, but which are all yoked to the WWE apparatus. This is, the documentary tells us, private.
And then, in the next scene, Angle tells us what happened anyway.
Ultimately, this is what's so fascinating: how can we tell what's real besides the basic contours of Angle's career and decline? Are we supposed to worry about it at all? Is reality even important? Is it something which is just mutually agreed upon after the requisite manipulations have been completed, the way Ronald Reagan made his own reality and Donald Trump makes his?
The answers aren't easy or apparent. But what is apparent is that WWE is in the business of creating new realities out of the detritus of the old. Better realities, where Kurt Angle is the prodigal son and Vince McMahon the beneficent patriarch. Uneasy or not, WWE forces us to engage with its vision of reality at every turn.