The newest installment of ESPN’s award-winning documentary series 30 for 30 is all about one of America’s strangest annual food rituals: the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Footage of this Fourth of July spectacle on Coney Island, where competitors furiously cram dozens of hot dogs and soggy buns into their mouths in front of a roaring crowd, can be hard to stomach at times. But director Nicole Lucas Haiems successfully weaves a compelling narrative out of archival footage of the contest and interviews with its stars. You really don’t have to care about the event — or competitive eating in general — to get sucked into the story.
Most of the film focuses on the rivalry between Japanese champion Takeru Kobayashi and American all star Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, whose careers were forever changed by opportunistic promoter/master of ceremonies George Shea. More than anything, the documentary portrays Kobayashi as a visionary athlete who was an instrumental figure in the American competitive eating boom of the last two decades. “I came to America to follow my dream,” he says early in the film. “I thought of myself as someone creating a new sport.” By developing his own eating style and competing with confidence and flair, Kobayashi inspired other fans of the sport, including Chestnut, to take their training more seriously.
Unfortunately, Kobayashi would eventually get burned by the sport that he helped popularize, and the film ends with a few revelations that might make fans of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest see the event in an unfavorable light. Although there are some absurd moments from other competitions thrown into the mix, including a hot dog eating contest where Kobayshi squares off against an actual grizzly bear, the film mostly sticks to the high-stakes drama of the big Fourth of July event and the media circus that swirls around it.
30 for 30: The Good, the Bad, and the Hungry premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on ESPN (it’s also airing again at 9:30 and 11 p.m.), and it will be available to stream later this week on YouTube, iTunes, and Amazon Prime.