Patriots

Review: In new docuseries ‘Man in the Arena,’ Tom Brady delivers an irresistible inside look at his football journey

Each episode of the upcoming docuseries Brady created along with Gotham Chopra is framed around a single Super Bowl appearance. It debuts on ESPN+ on Tuesday.

Tom Brady played for the Patriots from 2000 to 2019. JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Some will find it difficult to resist comparing “Tom Brady: Man in the Arena,” the 10-part series airing exclusively on ESPN+ beginning next Tuesday, to the epic “The Last Dance” on Michael Jordan and the ‘90s Chicago Bulls dynasty, which premiered to understandable fanfare in April 2020.

Having seen the first three episodes, I can report that “Man in the Arena” is compelling, richly detailed, and candid, and it will be irresistible to Patriots fans eager to relive extraordinary moments with the player most responsible for creating them.

The target audience here is you. That is why, beyond the super-famous athlete at its fulcrum and the six championship trophies the Patriots and Bulls each collected, it really isn’t much like “The Last Dance” at all. And we shouldn’t have expected it to be.

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“The Last Dance” came around at a point during the COVID-19 pandemic when the world was on pause and our stomachs were growling for sports content.

It also had the benefit of time and distance, and featured a team with far more universal popularity than the Patriots. Michael Jordan had rarely discussed the end of the Bulls’ dynasty, certainly not in any depth.

Brady created this project in collaboration with ESPN, 199 Productions, NFL Films, and his Religion of Sports production partner Gotham Chopra, the filmmaker behind the 2019 Facebook Watch series “Tom vs. Time.” His voice remains familiar, and he’s become even more outspoken since joining the Buccaneers last season. Earlier this week, Brady criticized the NFL players union for agreeing to a 17-game season. It’s hard to fathom him doing that as a young Patriot – or even an established one.

The biggest difference in the docs, though, is that Brady is generous with credit, while Jordan remains forever stuck in score-settling mode, even when the final buzzer long ago sounded on his victory.

Each episode of “Man in the Arena” is framed around a single Super Bowl appearance, with the 10th and final part of the series an epilogue about the Bucs’ championship last season. Two of Brady’s Patriot teammates appear as fellow narrators/storytellers in each of the three episodes I watched.

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The first episode features Willie McGinest and Drew Bledsoe, and the latter gets more than his due from the understudy who usurped him. Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison were featured in episode two. Other teammates and family members are included later. There will be no bitter Scottie Pippen-like figures after this airs in full.

Two of the best quotes actually come from Bledsoe.

On what he thought of Brady when he arrived as the No. 199 pick in the 2000 NFL Draft: “Just a skinny little twerp out of Michigan. I didn’t perceive him as a threat.”

After Brady retained the job once Bledsoe was ready to return from injury during the 2001 season, then got the start in the Super Bowl: “IF Tommy was an [expletive], it would have been really, really hard to [accept] that. But he’s not.”

“Tom has been very gracious and generous about spreading that love around,’’ said Chopra. “But this isn’t [’It’s Better To Be Feared’ author] Seth Wickersham’s. This isn’t the book ‘The Dynasty.’ This isn’t the definitive history of the New England Patriots. This isn’t ‘The Last Dance,’ though people have their own opinions. This is ‘Man in the Arena.’ This is Tom’s take, at least for now, across what happened in 20 years.

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“Tom says, I believe in the first episode, that you don’t realize the journey traveled while you’re in it. It’s only towards the end, when you’re looking back. He’s at this stage of his life now where he’s not just Tom Brady the quarterback. He’s Tom Brady the man, the father, a guy who has a lot of perspective.”

Filmmaker Gotham Chopra was born in Boston.
Filmmaker Gotham Chopra was born in Boston.JON KOPALOFF/GETTY IMAGES FOR RELIGION OF SPORTS

One of the themes Brady returns to is how small steps, perhaps even imperceptible at the time of occurrence, can turn into an unforgettable journey if they’re taken in the right direction. In his case, he says, it can lead to personal evolution.

“Things have happened in my life as I hoped they would happen,’’ he says at one point, but the further point is a reiterating thread through each episode: It was hard work, dedicated coaches and teammates, supportive family, self-awareness, and then more hard work that helped him get there. “The sustainable part about talent and potential is working hard,’’ he says.

Said Chopra: “It’s really about a guy across 20 years growing and evolving and the lessons that come with that. I call him old Neo, from ‘The Matrix.’ He’s evolved across time.”

Chopra said this docuseries developed organically out of working together on “Tom vs. Time” and other collaborations for Religion of Sports.

“After we did ‘Tom vs. Time,’ he still had many more stories to tell,’’ said Chopra, who said “Man in the Arena” initially was going to be shorter pieces rather than a longform project. “In particular, I found in him, going back to those first three Super Bowls, a wistfulness in him, like, ‘That was some unbelievable [expletive] and that was an unbelievable group of guys.’ There was sort of this romance around it, about that time. I almost had to stop him, he had so much to say about it.”

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The series elaborates on every significant element of Brady’s career – the first phase of the dynasty, the championship drought and Deflategate controversy, and then phase two of the dynasty, when the Patriots won their last three Super Bowls. And yet, because he’s still going – he’s an MVP frontrunner this season at age 44 – there are still chapters being written, more stories to be told.

“It’s Tom Brady, so you don’t really know when that journey ends,’’ said Chopra. “I ask him every few weeks, ‘So how much longer are you doing this thing for?’ He has different answers all the time. But I think it’s safe to say he’s closer to the end than he is the beginning. And even though it’s still going, he has that perspective to appreciate the journey.”

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