With the recent addition by Netflix of several films from ESPN's "30 for 30" series, we revisited what is perhaps one of our favorites documentaries from that award-winning series. When we first saw Fernando Nation, a 53-minute gem by filmmaker Cruz Angeles, in 2010, we were hooked. And after seeing the film again this weekend, it only confirmed what we felt two years: Fernando Nation is more than just an ESPN sports film.
Unlike other sports documentaries that focus first on the athlete, Angeles strives to examine the historical, social, and cultural reasons as to why Valenzuela would become a global sensation while pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981. The film starts by chronicling the history of how the mostly Mexican American neighborhood of Chavez Ravine would be razed and destroyed to pave the way for a new Dodger Stadium. It continues by examining the Mexican American and Chicano experience in Los Angeles during the 60s and 70s, as well as how Dodger ownership was pining for the discovery of a 'Mexican Sandy Koufax." It is through this context that viewers are introduced to Fernando's story, which was arguably one of the greatest stories in the history of baseball.
Yet Angeles's film does more. He prominently features a present-day Valenzuela, who gives his answers in both Spanish and English with raw honesty and insight. The film also covers how much of a big deal Fernando became to LA's Mexican American community and the country's growing Latino population. Additional nuggets include archival news reports from the early 80s with painful references to Spanish and Mexico, as well as a bad Johnny Carson gardener joke that still makes us cringe.
In the end, Angeles and his film achieve his vision perfectly. Yes, Fernando Valenzuela was huge. But it wasn't just because he was a successful pitcher. There was so much more to the story, and Fernando Nation succeeds because it went beyond just being a baseball film.