Watch the Football Film

In preparation for the Super Bowl, here’s a selected list of gridiron cinema

Right now your gridiron heroes are preparing for Super Bowl LVI by analyzing hours of football film. You can too! Dive into a surprisingly rich and varied genre that Cahiers du cinéma never called film peau de porc .

Against All Odds (1984)

A reworking of the 1947 classic noir Out of the Past. Jeff Bridges shows early signs of The Dude in his portrayal of down-on-his-luck, bearded and bemused star wide receiver for the imaginary Los Angeles Outlaws, Terry Brogan. Brogan is pressured by jumpy/coke addled nightclub impresario, wiry bookie bad boy James Woods, into trading in his cleats for gumshoes to search out Wood’s errant, itchy-fingered girlfriend, a buoyant Rachel Ward, who has run off with his cash. Much unfairly maligned pop meister Phil Collins contributes the throbbing title track. Director Taylor Hackford provides notable scenes, including a spectacular sex, death and sacrifice sequence fittingly played out amidst the stunning seaside alabaster ruins of Tulum, complete with inane vaguely anthropological dialogue serving as verbal foreplay.

Post-Mongo ex-NFL player Alex Karras is stalwart as the ill-fated Sully; a former great constantly muttering about how broads, corrupt politicians, lawyers and business types are ruining “the game.” One of those “broads”, the still beautiful at 60 Jane Greer, plays Ward’s wealthy team owner mother. She gives Chinatown’s Noah Cross a run for his money in the genteel evil LA property developer department. Greer was the femme fatale in the original Out of the Past. Another classic noir fixture, Richard Widmark, does a scene-stealing turn as Greer’s jowly, snarling, crooked lawyer/fixer. A well cast Paul Reubens playing mid-level imp to Widmark’s Mephisto fills out the cast. All in all, a plot heavy, good looking, sun washed immersion into early 80s ethos.

Remember the Titans (2000)

Remember the Titans, a Disney production, is the true story of African American coach Herman Boone. Titans, like the seminal Brian’s Song (1971) and so many football films like it see sport, at its best, as the go-to feel-good ameliorator/mediator of race and class relations that, under the right conditions, can enable great bringing together and better understanding in pursuit of shared goals. Think Tom Brady and Antonio Brown.

Titans is mostly admirably successful in attaining these goals. Not in the least because its potential “white savior” character, former Head Coach Yost, crucially, literally, steps aside so Denzel Washington’s Black character can take the head coach position in a recently desegregated Southern US high school in 1960s America. Thus Washington’s character with the aid of Assistant Coach Yost, a really good Will Patton, takes the lead in addressing the issues of that tumultuous era. Washington as Coach Boone is terrific.

While not too syrupy–the very real cement-headed racists among us are well represented–Titans is mostly free of the clunkiest cliches of the genre. However, we must warn you that there is a dance sequence leading to  bonding over shared appreciation of Motown music. Assistant Coach Yost’s tag-along spunky young daughter repeatedly, wearyingly, demonstrates why the success of Shirley Temple films was a phenomenon of another era.

Other than that, Washington anchors a strong young ensemble cast, including Ryan Gosling, that teaches us, among other things, that in the right world a gay blond, flowing locks late-year Californian transfer student quarterback who knows Kung Fu can bond with his raised in the rural South Black devoted Christian rival for the starting QB position. “You make them remember, forever, the night they played the Titans!” You will.

North Dallas Forty(1979)/Semi-tough (1977)

Outdated social mores, sexual politics and more relaxed attitudes towards body hair are on display in these two pain-avoidance pill-popping, partying and journeys-of-self-discovery comedies. Based on popular insider tell-all books these two, considered edgy at the time, films of the 70s fall under the football behind-the-scenes genre. Fans anticipated excess and transgression and they got both. Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristoferson, Jill Clayburgh, Nick Nolte and Mac Davis all seem to be having a good time.

Friday Night Lights (2004)

High school football as source of drama, purpose, meaning, escape and community for a small town America facing an evaporation of economic opportunities and encroaching anomie. People like to see themselves up on the screen and a large swath of flyover state America saw just that with Friday Night Lights which was based on the 1988 season of the resilient Odessa Panthers who, against all the odds, made it to the state championship only to lose in the final seconds.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as coach Gary Gaines. Basically what The Last Picture Show would have looked like if they focused more on the teenage lead characters football careers. The film spawned a critically acclaimed TV series that aired from 2006-2010 on NBC.

Horse Feathers (1932)

A touring vaudeville troupe was the young Marx Brothers’s Yale and Harvard. From the prow of that endeavor they got a pretty good view of the public of the day’s obsession with the rah rah Rudy Vallee, early F. Scott Fitzgerald golden age of higher education, and the role that football played in that emerging extended adolescence.

Building on Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) came Horse Feathers. An unruly Depression era confection that takes the fast-talking sharp-elbowed Jewish sons of the New York tenements into a place where pre Hays code characters like “college widows”–dames with very busy apartments who hung around college towns, in the words of popular ditties of the time, “teaching the boys anatomy”–and local bootleggers mixed and mingled with each incoming class.

Groucho is Huxley College’s new president charged with the weighty task of reviving the floundering fortunes of the school’s football team. Zeppo, who plays on the hapless squad, suggests bringing in professional ringers, thus adding Chico and Harpo to the mix. Each performs “Everyone Says I Love You” in their own way for early cinema heart throb Thelma Todd, the college widow in the piece. It all comes to a climax during the big game. Cue the usual well orchestrated misunderstandings, mistaken identities, slapstick and madcap hijinks. Original versions of the film included a sadly, now missing, sequence towards the end where the brothers play poker while the entire college goes up in flames.

Horse Feathers would be Paramount’s highest grossing film of the year.

Black Sunday(1977)/Two Minute Warning (1976)

Football as backdrop to terror double bill.

Both these films, released in relatively quick succession, one in late 1976, the next in 1977 posit a act of terror targeting a major football championship.

In Black Sunday, directed by the underrated and uneven John Frankenheimer, Bruce Dern portrays a traumatized Vietnam War vet blimp pilot in the thrall of a female Middle East terrorist. The plan is to crash a bomb-laden Goodyear blimp into a blissfully unaware crowd during the Super Bowl. (Why, even with conditions, did Goodyear approve this?) Parts of the film were actually shot during Super Bowl X in 1976 with actual NFL teams involvement. (Why, even with conditions, did the NFL approve this?)

Two Minute Warning, starring Charlton Heston, with the log line “91,000 People. 33 Exit Gates. One Sniper…” enjoyed much less of a pedigree and got no cooperation from the NFL. No NFL teams were involved nor official jerseys seen. The Goodyear blimp, however, pops up again as the hero in this tale as its cameras spot the demented sniper perched up in the higher reaches of the late lamented Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Police are alerted and the game is afoot.

The film spends fully half its running time introducing a dog’s breakfast of characters, the purpose of which seems to be to enable the audience, through exposure to their foibles and fumblings, to emotionally bond with the characters before they are randomly picked off by the sniper or seen running for their lives for over crowded exits in the midst of a terrified mob. Manipulative? Surely. Viscerally powerful. Yes.

Interestingly, some good tension is wrung out of Heston’s senior regular old school cop’s need to manage the LAPD’s then newfangled heavily militarized SWAT unit designed for just such events. In rumpled civilian dress standing among the all-in-black, smartly-uniformed, assault-rifle-armed crew, wielding his dainty, in comparison,  .38 revolver, Heston almost looks quaint, as out of place as a man peddling up to the start line of the Tour De France astride a Penny Farthing.

Reviews for the two films were mixed with some critics bridling at the crass emotional manipulation inherent in the premises of the two movies while others saw them as taut thrillers with good cinematography. Audiences were never confused about what they were getting.

American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story (2021)

The Kurt Warner story, like the equally inspiring Rudy (1993), We Are Marshall (2006) and Invincible (2006) is, as advertised, a true football underdog story. The films of this popular sub genre drenched in sentimentality and overcoming all obstacles culminating in orchestral swelling moments of crowd consumed personal and collective triumph wear their hearts on their sleeve. As they should. Railing against ham-handed emotional manipulation by movie makers in this genre is like complaining about the snow in Aspen.

Undrafted by the NFL after five years of college ball, unemployed, at one point homeless, our hero finds faith and the right girl when he pursues “calendar girl” Brenda Meoni. Meoni turns out to be a former Marine corporal and single mother on food stamps attending nursing college while struggling to care for her two children, one disabled. They make a go of it. Warner moves into her family’s basement and takes a job stocking grocery store shelves at night. Never fully giving up on his dream, Warner survives call-ups to the big leagues that go nowhere and semi-pro diversions like the short lived phenomenon of “arena football” until he gets a chance with the Rams as a very old rookie. The rest is Hollywood cliche.

The starting QB goes down and Warner goes in. Under his leadership the Rams earn the legendary nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf”, through a storybook 1999 season where they win the Super Bowl and the undrafted Warner wins both the regular season and Super Bowl MVP. You can’t make this stuff up, and there’s more.

American Underdog isn’t fancy. It’s a feel good movie brimming with really nice people, or at least reasonable facsimiles thereof, that not only exist but finish first. It’s the sort of borderline hagiography cynics and a certain type of critic detests and audiences adore. Choose accordingly.

Concussion (2015)

At what cost those highlight reels?

Concussion stars Will Smith as real-life immigrant forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, who after examining the brains of some prematurely deceased NFL players whose lives had spiraled out of control, takes on the hard work of confronting a football-mad America and entrenched financial interests about the potential long-term health consequences of those crowd-rousing plays. Omalu’s work and the efforts of others like him have led to sea change in the NFL ‘s approach to game-induced brain injuries and policies to avoid them.

After a viewing of Concussion, the playful, almost humorous phrase, “getting your bell rung” takes on a much more ominous tone.

Honorable Mentions (How many football movies  are there?)

Leatherheads (George Clooney, John Krasinski 2008)

Paper Lion  (Alan Alda 1968)

Knute Rockne All American (Ronald Reagan 1940)

The Waterboy (1998)

Necessary Roughness (Scott Bakula, Sinbad 1991)

Everybody’s All American (Jessica Lange, Dennis Quaid 1988)

The Longest Yard (Burt Reynolds 1974)

Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty 1978)

The Replacements (Keanu Reeves 2000)

All the Right Moves (Tom Cruise 1983)

Any Given Sunday (Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx 1999)

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Samuel Porteous

Samuel Porteous is a Shanghai/Hong Kong-based artist/author and founder of Drowsy Emperor Studio represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA). His work includes visual arts, illustration, graphic novels, screenwriting and film. Sam has published in the WSJ, Financial Times, SCMP, Fortune China, the Globe and Mail, National Post and Hong Kong Standard among others. He is also the author of "Ching Ling Foo: America's First Chinese Superstar" a biography of the late polymath magician come diplomat and author/illustrator of the graphic novel series Constable Khang's Mysteries of Old Shanghai.

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