This column should be running in late January. Ten years ago, Susan and I flew out to Park City, Utah, for our first (and probably only) Sundance Film Festival. Where “Wordplay,” the award-winning documentary about the crossword puzzle industry, had its world premiere on Jan. 21, 2006.
Directed and produced by Patrick Creadon and Christine O’Malley—husband and wife, and parents of three beautiful daughters—with whom we’ve been great friends for the past decade, this film devotes two or so of its 90 minutes to a song called “If You Don’t Come Across, I’m Gonna Be Down.” Written by me. That’s the local angle, the reason for the sojourn to the most fun-to-clue area in the country—Jazz setting; only state with a three-word capital; six-cornered state; Deseret, today; Zion National Park locale; etc.
While it was a fun-all-round trip, the significance of the achievement of the husband-wife team who created this film cannot be over-emphasized. Especially in hindsight. The whole deal was career-changing for Pat and Chris.
The Sundance Institute is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1981 by Robert Redford. It is dedicated “to the development of artists of independent vision” and the exhibition of their work. Through its now famous Film Festival, the Institute has developed into a world-wide resource for the Creadons and O’Malleys of the world.
These young, first-time filmmakers exemplified the values stressed by the Sundance Institute: independence and creative risk-taking. For, you see, while each had been in the movie-making industry for a few years, they had never before made a feature length documentary when, a couple of years earlier, they decided to make one about something of real interest to them: crossword puzzles.
Of 760 documentaries that applied for admission, only 16 were selected by the screeners at Sundance. Early positive reviews of “Wordplay” proved ominous, as by year’s end, the film had garnered the coveted Golden Tomato Award for being the most positively reviewed movie of the year. Not just the most positively reviewed documentary. The most positively reviewed movie of them all!
Basil Tsiokos, at sundance.org, wrote, “Creadon presents an entertaining and informative look at [Times puzzle editor Will] Shortz’s work and that of the puzzle constructors with whom he collaborates [and] cleverly integrates interviews with celebrity crossword solvers, including Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls, and others.”
However, he concluded that, “it’s the unexpectedly riveting coverage of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an annual competition founded by Shortz, that makes Wordplay really shine. … [T]his part of the film resembles other recent documentaries exploring competitions like spelling bees or Scrabble, [but] the focus for participants here is as much on the overarching sense of community their love of crosswords fosters as on winning.”
He called the film “an engrossing, yet lighthearted, portrait of an American institution,” noting that “its masterful execution produces the same satisfaction as completing a particularly ingenious and challenging puzzle.”
Note: it’s still as good now as it was then. Consider watching it again.
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.