30 for 30: The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius finds ESPN’s highly acclaimed documentary series once again going the true-crime route. This four-part, 340-minute saga deep-dives into the story of Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic sprinting champion who was a hero in his native South Africa until Valentine’s Day 2013, when he was arrested for allegedly murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. It’s the second four-part doc on Pistorius, after Amazon’s nearly four-hour Pistorius series, which debuted in 2019. Why so many hours on one man and one alleged crime? Well, it’s very, very complicated — and it’s also a recent trend for documentary series to stretch out and indulge all the space that streaming services allow them. We watched the first 90-minute episode of Life and Trials to see how deep it sets its hook.
Opening Shot: An establishing shot of an outdoor fence in the wee hours of the morning. Title card: 14 FEBRUARY 2013. Pretoria, South Africa.
The Gist: Oscar Pistorius’ family members remember Valentine’s Day, 2013 vividly. His siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins were awakened by calls that someone had been shot at Oscar’s house — specifically, Reeva Steenkamp. And she was dead. Shot by Oscar. He fired through a toilet door. He said he mistook her for a burglar in the dark. We see a still photo of him from that night, shirtless and covered with blood.
Authorities, however, were piecing together another story. Neighbors said they heard sounds of an altercation prior to the gunshots. Police said they had been called to the residence previously for domestic incidents. And didn’t it seem odd that Oscar pulled the trigger before he attempted to identify the person in his bathroom? Nigh-countless media outlets quickly descended on the scene, scraping up tidbits and running with them — the discovery of supplements in the house quickly became headlines about a “roid rage” murder. Local journalists couldn’t believe the predatory frenzy. Oscar’s friends, family and fellow athletes were shocked, and still testify to the strength and quality of his character.
It was a long fall from glory for Oscar. The doc details his bio: Born with a congenital defect, he had both feet amputated before he was a year old. It didn’t faze him. He walked and ran on his stumps, keeping up with schoolmates and siblings. In high school, he played rugby on prosthetics, which would routinely fall off, prompting officials to pause the game so they could be refitted. A knee injury pushed him toward running, and by age 17, he competed in the Athens Paralympics, obliterating world records on a pair of prosthetic blades. He was nicknamed Blade Runner, “the fastest man on no legs.”
He was also a point of pride for a country that desperately needed one. During and after the Apartheid era, South Africa was notorious for its history of violence. One expert says residents have “collective PTSD” after its many Experts testify that domestic violence is an epidemic in the country — and that’s why Oscar’s apparent murder of his girlfriend inspired considerable public divisiveness. You either absolutely believed his story, or absolutely condemned him as a villain. There was no in-between. “GOLDEN BOY LOSES SHINE” reads one tabloid headline — it’s undoubtedly true, but at this point in the story, we’re not sure how much shine he’s lost. Meanwhile, in jail, Oscar was deemed a suicide risk. His family was distraught. He sobbed through court appearances. The defense team put together a justification for bail, and the judge agreed. He was free for the time being, but there was no way he was going back to his home.
Our Take: Eight minutes into this saga, I committed myself to watching the next 330 minutes. It triggered some serious true-crime-doc susceptibilities — the same ones that kept me glued to O.J.: Made in America, McMillions and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. But director David Gordon didn’t quite sustain those vibes. The first 90 minutes of Life and Trials offered haphazard pacing, a cluttered constellation of talking heads and a final third that almost pointlessly draws out the drama of Pistorious’ bail hearing. A cursory internet search reveals further significant developments in the case, but I wondered if five-and-a-half hours — and then some — of this story would be revelatory for viewers, or just reveal Gordon’s need for further editing. And maybe Amazon’s Pistorius, which I haven’t seen, might be the better option?
And yet, 30 for 30 has so rarely failed us. The six hours of O.J. earned a theatrical release and Oscar win. Recent deep dives into Michael Vick, Dennis Rodman and Lance Armstrong were pretty fascinating. The brand carries weight. Sure, Life and Trials could use a fresh approach to the chronicling of a hero’s fall and the sensational media circus engulfing it. But part of me wanted to learn the details of Oscar’s trials and why, and if there will ever even be a why. Maybe Gordon will eventually justify the series’ protracted run time. Maybe it’ll draw the Pistorius family’s upper-class status, and the more arrogant side of Oscar’s personality, into greater focus. Maybe it’ll better clarify if public opinion of Oscar has changed since Reeva’s death seven years ago — it’s hard to discern if interviewees are discussing current or past feelings. Maybe we should give it another episode before we bail.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Earnestly addressing the camera, Oscar’s uncle, Arnold Pistorius, says Oscar never returned to his home once he was out on bail, because it’s impossible to get the horrible imagery of such an occurrence out of one’s mind.
Sleeper Star: Brian Frasure, an American Paralympic athlete and prosthetist, helped fit Oscar with state-of-the-art running prosthetics — then watches Oscar dash by him during competition.
Most Pilot-y Line: “In this case, it wasn’t whodunit. We know who did it. It was really about whydunit.” — forensic psychologist Gerard Labuschagne
Our Call: STREAM IT. The first episode of The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius is bumpy, inconsistent and a little bit frustrating. But maybe subsequent segments will straighten out the narrative — 30 for 30 deserves the benefit of the doubt.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Watch The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius on ESPN+