Untold: Caitlyn Jenner 2021 Review
The Gist: At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, a little-known American athlete rocketed to international fame by winning the gold medal in the decathlon, an event traditionally considered to represent the “greatest athlete in the world”. In besting the field, defeating the Soviet defending champion, and breaking the world record for points in the event, Caitlyn Jenner (then competing under her name given at birth, Bruce Jenner, which is used contextually throughout the documentary) quickly became a star, and it’s a spotlight that she would rarely cede over the coming decades. From the cover of Playgirl to Keeping Up With The Kardashians, I Am Cait, basking in the reflected light of starlet daughters Kylie and Kendall, her very public gender transition, and even a still-ongoing campaign in California’s gubernatorial recall election, Jenner’s spent nearly half a century in the public eye, and UNTOLD: Caitlyn Jenner rewinds the story to the beginning.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: In letting a hugely prominent and polarizing sports figure tell their own story, there’s a structural similarity to Michael Jordan’s role in The Last Dance, albeit in a much more condensed version than that sprawling, ten-hour epic.
Performance Worth Watching: Other figures—Jenner’s first wife and eldest child, for instance—are interviewed here, but Jenner herself is the star of the show, serving as de facto narrator in addition to being the film’s subject.
Memorable Dialogue: “I said to myself, ‘that’s it’,” Jenner recalls of watching the Soviet Union’s Mykola Avilov receive the decathlon gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, “That’s what I want, right there.” From there, the goal was clear. “My life from 1972 to 1976 was simple. I got up, and I trained, six to eight hours a day, 365 days a year.” Later, after winning gold and breaking the world record, Jenner notes “I was scared to death. What was my life going to be like?”
Sex and Skin: There’s discussion of sexuality, of course, but no sexual content.
Our Take: “A distraction from who I am.” The phrase is repeated several times by Jenner in the extensive on-screen interviews that form the backbone of this fascinating biographical documentary. In the first usage, Jenner refers to the thronging media attention after capturing Olympic gold; in the second, she uses it in reference to family life, to being a husband and father. Beneath the accolades, Jenner was struggling with gender dysphoria, and considering transitioning at a time when the possibility of doing so was only beginning to enter the public consciousness.
“The issue was not going away,” Jenner notes, after backing out of an early attempt to transition, conceding her great fear of doing so. But the media attention was only increasing in recent decades, with her family featured on the wildly-popular Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and paparazzi dogging Jenner at all turns. Finally, in April 2015, Jenner publicly came out as transgender, announcing her name and identity to the world. “I wanted to say, ‘screw all you people: this is me, accept it,” Jenner laughs.
In this sense, UNTOLD: Caitlyn Jenner tells two halves of a story. First, there’s the story of how a person known to the world as Bruce Jenner became famous, a thrilling sports story of physical and emotional perseverance, struggle and ultimately dominance on the world stage. It’s a linear narrative; two Olympic games, ten events, one gold medal and one world record.
The second half of the story, and the far more nuanced and compelling one, is how Caitlyn Jenner emerged, eradicating a character she had created to defend herself from a world she felt hadn’t been ready for her yet, an identity that became famous but one that wasn’t her truth.
“Sometimes they go, ‘Caitlyn won the Games, it was really Caitlyn,” Jenner notes, explaining her own view of her pre-transition identity and its place in history. “No, no no. Bruce won the Games, I have no problem saying that. I give him credit, he did that. Now, was that all of me, and my whole story? Not even close. There’s so much more to me than that. But I do honor him, and call him Bruce, because he did do that.” Jenner seems at peace with the dichotomy between the identity she created and the identity she was finally able to live, a peace that took a lifetime to achieve.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Whether you’re old enough to have watched the Montreal Olympics live, or have only heard about them as ancient history, UNTOLD: Caitlyn Jenner is a compelling look at where things began for a complex and controversial figure, and how she defines an identity that is hers alone to define.
Scott Hines is an architect, blogger and internet user who lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife, two young children, and a small, loud dog.