On Tuesday, HBO aired Andre the Giant, a new documentary about the famous professional wrestler. Produced in conjunction with WWE, the wrestling promotion that booked French-born Andre Roussimoff for most of his North American career, and Bill Simmons’ website The Ringer, it’s an insightful, emotional look about the man behind the myth.
Though Andre is seared into the pop culture mind for his appearance in The Princess Bride, it’s likely that most fans know little about him — and more specifically, what it was like to be him. Andre was literally larger than life. He couldn’t fit into cars, or airplane bathrooms; people pointed at him in public, and not always in the friendly way. According to the documentary, he was diagnosed with acromegaly, in which a person’s body overproduces growth hormone, in the early ‘80s but refused treatment, as it would’ve interrupted his wrestling career. He gave everything to the wrestling business, and died young, all in the service of entertaining the people. He was a lonely, gentle soul, and the movie treats his life with incredible empathy.
There’s one giant distraction in the documentary, pardon the pun: Hulk Hogan. Talking about Andre the Giant without talking about Hogan is probably impossible, as far as North American fans are concerned. Hogan was the biggest wrestler of the ‘80s, if not the most recognizable North American wrestler of the last 40 years (with apologies to Ric Flair and the Rock). His rivalry with Andre helped cement him as a living legend. Hogan is featured liberally in the documentary, talking about his personal relationship with Andre, his reputation around the industry, and most crucially, their iconic match at Wrestlemania III. There, Hogan successfully defended his championship belt against Andre, even slamming him to the ground — a physical feat that had been accomplished before, but certainly never publicized as much. It’s one of the defining wrestling images of that era, and truly a spectacle to watch.
Giving Hogan the space to tell his side of the story is important, because he was really there. But on the other hand, Hulk Hogan currently maintains a weird reputation in public, thanks to his legal escapades in recent years. In 2012, he sued the website Gawker over a sex tape it published without his approval. The lawsuit, which was backed financially by Peter Thiel, culminated with the closure of Gawker — and only after audio from the sex tape was released of Hogan using racial slurs. The revelation of the audio tape caused WWE to cut all ties with Hogan, wiping him from their website, programming, and video games. He hasn’t made an appearance with the company in nearly three years, with current wrestlers saying he has a lot of amends to make.
Addressing Hogan’s present context in a documentary about somebody else is impossible, but it’s still strange how much work the film does to burnish his myth. Nearly halfway through the movie, the filmmakers spend several minutes focusing specifically on Hogan, and how important he was. Hogan was the first true star of wrestling’s mainstream expansion, as the business shifted from a territorial model — with every region having its own promotion and stars — to a cable model, where the WWF blasted its own stars on televisions across the nation.
Archival footage of Hogan’s exploits — including his spot at Wrestlemania I, where he never interacted with Andre — are juxtaposed with Hogan explaining his rise in the business, and the approval of other commentators. “You look at Hulk Hogan, and you see everything Vince McMahon wants a pro wrestler to be,” says The Ringer’s David Shoemaker. (McMahon is the owner of the WWE, and is more responsible than anybody in history for the way wrestling exists today.)
This is all meant to build toward the climactic Wrestlemania III match, the film’s centerpiece, in which we learn about how important Andre losing was to building Hogan’s image. “Hogan beating Andre was symbolic of Vince McMahon putting the ghosts of the territorial era to bed,” Shoemaker says. “This is Hulk Hogan beating the biggest star in professional wrestling history until Hulk Hogan.” We learn about Hogan’s nervousness about whether Andre would actually lose, since if he decided he wasn’t getting pinned, nobody could make him.
It’s a great sequence, especially since the match — which we see in bits and pieces — is still viscerally exciting. But while the match was important for Hogan and the WWE (then known as the WWF), it’s bizarre that the movie spends nearly a third of its 90 minute runtime building up to and explaining this one event, when the main takeaway about Andre is his generosity in promoting Hogan — a generosity that’s already explained throughout the movie, in other, more unexplored stories about his life. (The Hogan match is important, but it’s also been incredibly well-covered in the last 30 years.)
Why spend so much time highlighting Hogan and the WWE, then? When you consider that the movie was produced in conjunction with the WWE, who has been antsily teasing a Hogan comeback for several months, it suddenly carries the whiff of brand-building for a tarnished legend’s reputation. It’s impossible to come away from the movie with anything but a respect for Hogan’s accomplishments — a respect that, in the real world, is being necessarily challenged because of his more unsavory actions. (And, to be clear, his language in the leaked videos was incredibly vile.)
Wrestling is a business built on the lies men and women tell to build up themselves. While the documentary is a genuinely great watch — there are several huge “gets” in the movie, including an interview with Andre’s notoriously private daughter — it’s moments like these that raise awkward questions: Am I being lied to? What’s the agenda? That’s an incredible distraction for a documentary that’s claims to present the unvarnished truth, especially since other myths around Andre are reiterated in the movie, making it unclear how much we’re being told is really true. (One example: Several people in the documentary repeat the widely held belief he was over 7 feet tall, but he was closer to 6 foot 7.) But if nobody challenges the lie, or asks for a fuller picture, the mythology is safely intact — and surely, Hogan wouldn’t mind getting his back.