That’s Kurt Angle to you, a man with more experience of wrestling than most. He’s a celebrated Olympic Gold medallist at the 1996 Atlanta games, but he’s also a Hall of Famer in the more financially lucrative WWE, where he became a household name of a different sort alongside such luminaries as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Ric Flair, The Undertaker and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. The athleticism of these entertainers is not in doubt, but it’s still a remarkable career swing and one achieved at some personal, physical and mental cost to Kurt Angle; Alex Perry’s moving and detailed documentary currently streaming on Peacock delves deep into what makes Kurt Angle tick.
‘You did not want to mess with the Angle boys,’ is an opening salvo that provides some insight into how Kurt Angle and his brothers started out in Pennsylvania; before there were any cameras, prizes or contracts around, the brothers used to fight for sport, with the physique of “Greek gods’ but no audience but each other. That changes as Angle’s physique and dedication thrust him towards representing his country; Angle’s arduous training regime makes Mark Wahlberg’s 3am chicken-burgers, gym and golf-fest look positively lightweight. With Angel’s father, ‘a very functional alcoholic’, dying young in a tragic accident, Angle has a lot to prove, to himself and the world.
As if that personal loss wasn’t enough to bear, Angle ends up training at the now-notorious Foxcatcher camp, overshadowed by John Du Pont’s murder of wrestler Dave Schultz, a narrative familiar from the Steve Carell/Channing Tatum movie of the same name. Nevertheless, despite such adversity, Angle somehow makes it to the Olympics, but has to compete with a broken neck, the first of four neck breaks over his career. It helps that Angle is in such great shape; ‘You have to have a neck to break it. He has no neck,’ is a particularly pithy comment here. Opponents on route to success are formidable, notably one described here as ‘a man who would take advantage of an injury’, but such tough guy competition isn’t enough to stop Angle finally winning gold in Atlanta.
But American lives CAN have second acts, and Kurt Angle heads from competitive wrestling to wrestling as entertainment, joining Vince McMahon and his merry crew on the lucrative WWE circuit. ‘What kind of guy has Kurt Angle become?’ asks a commentator, and it’s the right question to ask. In an arena stuffed with costumes (Triple H, The Undertaker!) and catchphrases (‘Can YOU smell what The Rock is cooking?’), Angle plays down the obvious patriotism that his winner’s medal allows and sells himself as a bad guy of the ring, and the crowds, plus viewers at home, love him for it. The notion that ‘they’d be buying into your story,’ gives Angle his own narrative, but as his injuries pile up, Angle finds himself like the protagonist of Darren Aronofksy’s The Wrestler, one injury from career-ending redundancy or even death. Not surprisingly, Angle develops an opioid addiction, over-medicated after his sister’s death, necking 65 pills a day and spinning out of control while managing his career and his responsibilities as a family man and father take a toll on his mental health.
With plentiful archive footage and fresh interviews, Angle is a serious documentary that touches on the hot topics of opioid addiction and the lack of support provided to athletes and performers, in professional sports or entertainment, and while the mood is upbeat, Angle’s story offers a scathing critique of the workings of the sports world. But the punch-line of Perry’s film is firmly positive, with Angle emerging as a winner on all counts, his hard-fought victory attested to by the likes of ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey, and celebrated with a breath-taking final shot that demonstrates just what an artist Angle was in his prime. Even at 55, he’s still a role model that shows that some players can play the game and come out on top, despite overwhelming odds.