Starring: Will Shortz, Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina, Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne, Al Sanders
Director: Patrick Creadon
For fans of cute, fuzzy animals (“March of the Penguins”), musical prodigies (“Rock School”) and adrenaline-pumping sports (“Murderball”), last year’s class of feature documentaries was nothing short of spectacular. And with the genre becoming more like your average Hollywood narrative with each successive year, it comes as no surprise that the first great documentary of 2006 – Patrick Creadon’s “Wordplay” – also trumps most Hollywood thrillers with its fast-paced, nail-biting journey into the crazy (and incredibly nerdy) world of crossword puzzle enthusiasts.
Whether or not you actually enjoy these types of puzzles is a moot point, really, since “Wordplay” will surely fascinate audiences of all skill levels, as well as those not even interested in the scholarly pastime. And just to be sure, Creadon has packed his 94-minute nerd doc with appearances by pop icons like comedian Jon Stewart, former President Bill Clinton, filmmaker Ken Burns, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, and lesbian-rock headliners, the Indigo Girls; all of whom share a passion for doing The New York Times crossword puzzle.
The film even kicks off with a brief biography of Times crossword editor Will Shortz, who, following a childhood obsession with puzzle-solving, graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Enigmatology – a self-created major focusing on the analysis of puzzles and codes. Four years later, Will founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut – an event that still takes place today and also serves as the main backdrop of the film. Showcasing a handful of championship hopefuls, including twenty-year-old prodigy Tyler Hinman, Florida-based puzzle-maker Trip Payne (who also holds the title as the youngest winner of the event), seven-time champion Joe Delfin, perennial third-place everyman Al Sanders, and the baton-twirling 2001 champ, Ellen Ripstein, “Wordplay” culminates at the 2005 ACPT where these five participants battle it out for top honors.
Not since “Trekkies” has a documentary so brilliantly explored the world of nerds, but unlike the aforementioned, “Wordplay” has a much kinder eye for its subjects, and instead of satirizing them, is far more respectful of their (ahem) dorkier tendencies. In doing so, Creadon establishes a fantastic group of characters that the audience can indiscriminately root for; though younger viewers will undoubtedly cheer on frat boy Tyler as he strives to break Trip’s record. And though these puzzle-solving maniacs are the real stars of the film, Jon Stewart’s candid performance steals the show with hilarious remarks like “I’ll do the USA Today puzzle if I’m in a hotel, but I won’t feel good about myself” and a playful swagger that results in his decision to do the Tuesday puzzle, not in marker (as he originally jests), but in glue stick.
Luckily, “Wordplay” doesn’t require this sort of confidence to succeed. It’s already an exceptional piece of work that is both enlightening and an absolute delight to watch. And while it might not make you want to rush out to the nearest corner shop to pick up a copy of the latest Times, it’s something that every American should experience. Trust me, your brain will thank you.
For a documentary, “Wordplay” is absolutely packed with special features, but the coolest addition to the single-disc release has to be the inclusion of five famous crossword puzzles from the New York Times. Included in a mini-book as well as on the DVD-Rom portion of the disc, the five puzzles are also accompanied by a short featurette (“5 Unforgettable Puzzles”) that profiles each of their respective creators. Of course, there are plenty of other extras to get excited about, including 16 deleted scenes (most of which feature Will Shortz, since he was the initial focus of the film), a 21-minute featurette on director Patrick Creadon’s Sundance experience, and the short film, “Waiting for the New York Times” by Patricia Erens. Rounding out the bonus material is a short update on the most recent competition (“…And the Winner Is”) and a colorful audio commentary with Creadon, Shortz and Merl Reagle.