Revisiting a ‘Screwjob’: Bret Hart documentary reveals much about life beyond the WWE, says filmmaker


When journalist Paul Jay set out 25 years ago to make his documentary “Wrestling With Shadows,” he was planning on a kind of character study: a profile of the Calgary-born champion Bret “The Hitman” Hart, focused on the gruelling grind of ring work and steeped in themes of heritage and tradition.

What he ended up with was closer to a 1970s-style conspiracy thriller about vice, corruption and the loss of innocence: the “Chinatown” of pro wrestling movies.

“When we finished shooting, I didn’t know what to do,” recalled Jay, who will present “Wrestling With Shadows” at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Saturday at 6 p.m. (Hart is scheduled to join via Zoom).

“I had a film about this famous wrestling family that was somewhat dysfunctional and a film about the behind-the-scenes reality of wrestling, but I didn’t really have an ending,” Jay said. “Then Bret tells me that he’s gonna be wrestling in Montreal and it looks like it’s gonna be his final match. We were running out of money to shoot, but I said, ‘To heck with it, let’s go.’ It turned out to be the most crazy ending to a film you could imagine.”

The craziness in question was the infamous Montreal Screwjob, in which the lines between scripted reality and volatile chaos underlying the World Wrestling Entertainment brand became blurred beyond recognition — and perhaps in perpetuity.

Before the 1997 match, Hart and the company’s CEO Vince McMahon had agreed that “The Hitman” — who was on the verge of leaving for a rival circuit — would walk out of the match with the title belt around his waist: a compromise tied to Hart’s stubbornness about losing in front of his Canadian fan base. But McMahon called an audible, awarding the match (and the championship) to the sleazy anti-hero Shawn Michaels.

It was a violation of protocol that doubled as a gauntlet dropped at the feet of wrestling fans. For the crowd at the Molson Centre, figuring out exactly what was happening in the ring was difficult; by the time a furious Hart knocked McMahon out backstage in retaliation, it was clear the script had been thrown out the window.

“I had agreed that I wouldn’t reveal that wrestling was all fake,” said Jay. “At the time, they were still pretending.

“I figured, this is like doing a movie about a magician: you don’t reveal how the magic tricks are done, but you can still do a film about the magician. It turned out that when Bret got screwed in Montreal, he didn’t care about any of that anymore.”

Before its shocking finale, “Wrestling With Shadows” works as a sympathetic, observant portrait of a performer as high-performance athlete, whose hardscrabble background clearly shaped his world view — and whose pride is the kind that typically comes before a fall.

Jay captures Hart’s mixture of confidence and egomania, which the grappler would amplify smartly into his “Hitman” persona: the tetchy edge of a not-quite-supersized gladiator who nevertheless claimed to be the “best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be.”

“There was some blurring in where Bret began and ‘The Hitman’ ended,” said Jay.

“But mostly (Bret) just really loves, enjoyed and respected the people that love him back. So he took seriously for example, how disappointed they would have been, especially his Canadian fans, if he lost the belt in Montreal. Now you can say this is meaningless — the belt is a piece of theatre and it’s scripted. But the emotions and feelings for the fans who sincerely love, you know, loved him, he took that seriously.”

After Montreal, Hart moved to the Atlanta-based WCW, where his character was creatively mismanaged; meanwhile, McMahon — whose genius for self-promotion had always transcended ethical considerations — used the real-time legend of the “screwjob” to give himself a new on-air character: a cruel, authoritarian heel who became a dramatic foil for his own employees.

“What Vince did was really quite brilliant,” said Jay, who had a few run-ins with WWE’s legal department before the film was complete. “Because he was depicted in (my) film as an actual corporate bad guy, he decided to start playing a corporate bad guy. And they realized that even though (‘Wrestling With Shadows’) outed the theatre of it all, it actually kind of didn’t matter. It gave them another way to tell the story.”

Between its globally branded subject matter and its sharp, independently minded storytelling, “Wrestling With Shadows” has become one of the most viewed Canadian documentaries of all time.

“It was purchased and aired in every market in the world,” said Jay, who believes that its legacy — and meaning — extend beyond its carnivalesque milieu.

“Going to watch wrestling is like going to watch a movie,” he said. “It’s suspension of disbelief. You know it’s theatre, but it draws you in so that you’ve participated as an audience member as if it’s real. It’s OK to have suspended disbelief about wrestling or movies, but it’s not OK to have suspended disbelief about the actual world, and that’s part of the problem that’s happening in a broader sense in the culture.”

He points out that before Donald Trump got into politics, he used appearances in McMahon’s programming to test-drive his bad-boy charisma: “It’s where he learned how to get a crowd to pop to the BS.”

With this in mind, Jay’s new project is a documentary called “How to Stop a Nuclear War,” produced in collaboration with Daniel Ellsberg, the famous whistleblower of the Pentagon Papers (with a righteous crusader’s psychology similar to Hart’s).

Even though the stakes of this material are obviously higher than the story he told in “Wrestling With Shadows,” Jay said he sees the films as existing on the same continuum.

“What goes on generally in politics — in Canada too — is mostly theatre. There’s a willingness to risk nuclear war to make money, but out front you have these people who say ‘We care about America, we care about you, we care about the working man.’

“It’s similar to the fiction of wrestling, which is why I think about Trump learning his politics there. He’s the most exaggerated form of that.”


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