Squeezed in among all the multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters this season there is also a handful of documentary films drawing audiences to neighborhood theaters. Alan Silverman has a look at three of the current non-fiction films: Heart of the Game about a girls high school basketball team, Who Killed The Electric Car, about the sad history of a non-polluting automobile, and Wordplay, about a pastime that is a passion for millions, crossword puzzles.
Wordplay takes the audience into the world of puzzlers at the most competitive level: the national tournament held every year in Stamford, Connecticut for the past three decades. The film also introduces a range of people for whom the daily crossword puzzle is a passion: from workaday commuters to show business celebrities and world leaders.
"I find it very relaxing and I really found it relaxing in the White House because, just for a moment, you take your mind off whatever you're doing," said Former President Bill Clinton. He is among puzzle enthusiasts interviewed in the film.
"Sometimes you have to go at a problem the way I go at a complicated crossword puzzle. Sometimes I'd pick up the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle and I'd go through way over half the clues before I'd know the answer to one," added Mr. Clinton. "Then you start with what you know the answer to and then you just build on it. Eventually you can unravel the whole puzzle.
"I like puzzle people. They're smart, interesting, well-read, cultured people," said puzzle-master Will Shortz who is at the center of Wordplay. He founded and runs the national tournament, but Shortz is best known as editor of the daily New York Times puzzle.
"My all time favorite clue that I wrote was for the answer 'spiral staircase' and my clue was 'it may turn into a different story," he added. "You see a clue like that. It leads you down the garden path, you're thinking of the narrative, and when the correct answer hits you finally, because you start to get it from the crossing answers, you smack your forehead and say 'of course!' I enjoy coming up with those and, obviously, solvers like those too."
Wordplay is directed by Patrick Creadon.
An environmental effort that failed or, depending on your perspective, was not allowed to succeed is the subject of the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car.
The film chronicles the history of a recent California clean air policy that required a certain percentage of all cars sold in the state be "zero emission vehicles." Manufacturers responded with electric cars, notably the innovative EV1 from General Motors; but director Chris Paine says his interviews with drivers, engineers and officials showed that the automakers, oil companies and even government agencies put up roadblocks.
"Almost no one knows there were electric cars sold in the United States," said Mr. Paine. "The short story is California made car companies make these cars. They made several thousand - all of them: Ford, GM, Toyota - and they were probably the most advanced cars ever developed with their all-electronic design, no internal combustion engine - all of the things that the movie talks about. Then I think when the car industry, the oil industry and various people saw what was really at stake for them, they dismantled this program, dismantled the law and went after it very hard. The irony, or tragedy, of it is they would say 'consumers never wanted the electric car; they were disappointing and never made it in the marketplace.' Well, the marketplace never got to really try them out."
As Who Killed The Electric Car shows, almost all of the EV1 electric cars were destroyed by the manufacturer, even while owners were clamoring to buy them back.
A high school girls basketball team from Washington State and its unconventional coach are the stars of the uplifting story in The Heart of the Game.
"I can honestly, from my heart, say that I could care less about winning and losing," said Bill Resler a tax law professor. "However, winning is more fun."
Mr. decided to coach high school basketball out of love for the game and the hope that he could help the girls at Seattle's Roosevelt High succeed. They did, but coach Resler says he was surprised when filmmaker Ward Serrill asked to document the real-life sports drama:
"When he came and said he wanted to film the way I coached my thought was 'what an odd thing to do,'" added. Mr. Resler. "I could see no reason for him to do such; and then he was around all the time, filming every little detail, and I would constantly be thinking 'what is he thinking about? what does he think he has here?' When I finally saw the movie, I was stunned. I could not believe the way he captured the emotion of what those teenage girls go through."
That is most evident in the story of Darnelia Russell, a standout player who leaves school when she becomes pregnant, but then returns to complete her studies and battles to regain a place on the team. Russell says watching the film made her realize what a powerfully positive force this teacher had been in her life.
"He always would tell me that I was smart and whatever, but I never would believe him because if I'm so smart, how come I can't pay attention or just do right," she said. "I don't understand, if I'm so smart, how come I just can't do it. Then after a while I figured maybe he is telling the truth and not just saying that because I'm a good basketball player and he wants me on his team. Maybe he really does see that I'm smart and I can do it. After I realized that, it's when I started doing better just thinking positive about everything.
The Heart of the Game is narrated by actor and rap music star Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges as it follows the changes in the Roosevelt High team and its players over the course of four years.