George Plimpton was called a pioneer of “new journalism” by no less a literary master of the art than Tom Wolfe. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Plimpton traveled in celebrated circles like someone’s tag-along kid brother, taking notes, gamely joining in, and leaving behind a delightful paper trail on his encounters with real life.
Over those years he wrote countless articles and some 30-odd books (Paper Lion and Out of My League, among them), all the while serving as founding editor of The Paris Review.
Yet there is one very personal story that George Plimpton never set to paper and never told in public: It involved the night in 1968 when he impulsively grabbed the shaking gun hand of Sirhan Sirhan and pinned it down, a moment after the fatal shooting of Robert F. Kennedy.
How that came about and what he told police investigators afterwards come somewhere near the middle of Plimpton!, the fine new documentary film about the man opening this today, Friday, June 21st, exclusively at the West End Cinema.
In a sense, the Sirhan incident is hardly more extraordinary than the 1,001 other remarkable highlights of Plimpton’s life. But this one was different because it was not an experience he sought, and the fact that he would not turn it into more grist for his word processor speaks well of who and what George Plimpton was as a man.
Filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling succeed in finding other moments of interest and insight in their new documentary. They have to cram in a good deal of information to account for Plimpton’s very full life, and for the most part they do so quite smoothly and agreeably
Despite all the glamorous faces and name-dropping anecdotes, though, the subject begins to wear thin after an hour or so. How many times can we watch the same story about this strikingly tall but shy patrician dropout from the Philips Exeter Academy flaunting his inadequacies by playing professional football with the Detroit Lions, boxing with Archie Moore, attempting trapeze stunts with Barnum & Bailey, performing on triangle at the New York Philharmonic and even appearing on screen in a John Wayne western?
Anyone with a tattered library card, of course, will be endlessly enthralled by Plimpton’s brushes with Hemingway and Faulkner, Capote, and Mailer, Puzo, and Styron, and all the countless other authors who became frequent elbow-rubbers due to his long and valuable editorship at The Paris Review.
Touched on only briefly are his two marriages, which seemed to have gone on a bit outside his comfort zone. Bean and Poling leave us with the irony that a man who was famous for his “social genius” and eagerness to join in, always ended up standing sadly apart from the world he inhabited.
Plimpton! is Not Rated. It opens today exclusively at the West End Cinema. Showtimes are here.
Running Time: One Hour and 27 minutes.