When the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants kick off the 2012 National Football League season tonight, so begins another epic roller-coaster adventure towards the Super Bowl. Sometimes, football seems like the closest thing America has to a national religion, and some of sports’ greatest and most dramatic moments unfolded on the gridiron, while tens of millions of fans watched on television. No wonder such memorable plays are tagged with nicknames like the Immaculate Reception, the Hail Mary, and the Music City Miracle.
It’s the ultimate team sport, and the game is often breathtaking in its complexity and its brutality. But while its popularity is indisputable and its supremacy as a television draw unrivaled, Hollywood and the NFL have never really clicked. (Maybe the NFL really needs to put a franchise back in Los Angeles.) In contrast to the town’s long-term romance with baseball, there have been very few movies that truly loved professional football. Maybe it’s as simple as George Carlin’s famous bit about the linguistic differences between the two uniquely American games, but when Hollywood digs in to baseball, there’s bound to be plenty of poetry — think Crash Davis in Bull Durham, Terrence Mann in Field of Dreams. On the other hand, professional football is treated like a meat-grinder that rips up players bodies and souls. There’s no idealism, no ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson lamenting, “Shoot, I’d play for nothing.” Take North Dallas Forty, for example, which captured the win-at-all costs atmosphere that drove athletes to drugs and booze. In The Longest Yard, Burt Reynolds is an ex star sent to prison for gambling on games. And in The Last Boyscout — admittedly not one of the pantheon football movies — the gambling in football is so prevalent that one overstressed running back literally shoots defenders with a handgun that he concealed in his uniform. I don’t think that’s what the Gipper had in mind.
High school and college football movies, oddly enough, are occasionally spared Hollywood’s cynical cinematic lens that treats the game like war, the players like soldiers. Rudy is the Hoosiers of football movies — Will McAvoy cries every time it’s on — and Remember the Titans and The Blind Side used football to tackle social issues. But the original Friday Night Lights was pretty hardcore in the way players were used and abandoned, as were All the Right Moves and Varsity Blues. Even Everybody’s All American, which starred Dennis Quaid as a college football star, turned dark when he was drafted by the Denver Broncos.
True, there have been some professional football movies with traces of hope and affection. Invincible with Mark Wahlberg was a Disney-fied version of a real-life underdog, and Jerry Maguire had its uplifting moments, even if the sport’s cruel corporate culture is ever present. Brian’s Song is beloved, the Pride of the Yankees of its subgenre, but the football in the film was rightfully secondary to the melodrama.
Maybe professional football movies are depicted in such a harsh light because this is the way that professional football really is. Oliver Stone, he of Wall Street and Platoon, went a little bit overboard with Any Given Sunday, but perhaps not too much. Football is violent, it is cruel, it is unforgiving. Get injured, you’re cut. No one is irreplaceable. (Ask Peyton Manning.)
But maybe Hollywood also sees only the sport’s warts because football is an exclusive athletic experience. Almost everyone in America played some version of Little League baseball, learned about Babe Ruth, and roots for the home team. Ron Shelton played minor league baseball, and his experiences permeated every frame and line of dialogue in Bull Durham. But for all of football’s popularity, what percent of its fans actually played the game. Thus what percentage of Hollywood writers and decision makers know what it’s like inside the huddle, know what’s like to see real stars — after a head-rattling collision — know what’s it like to be the hero and the goat?
There are too many NFL stories that would make for great, nuanced movies, beginning with Lombardi, which ESPN and Robert De Niro are reportedly working on. Jake Gyllenhaal was once rumored to be attached to the role of Joe Namath, the Jets famous playboy quarterback, for a film with James Mangold. And what about Jim Plunkett, the Stanford All-American raised by two blind parents who was written off as a bust when he turned pro — until he was resurrected as a Super Bowl winning quarterback with the Oakland Raiders. How is that not as great as The Rookie?
Football can be a cruel sport, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve movies that showcase and admire its essence, the simple game you grew up playing on the front lawn with your neighbors, drawing up plays in the dirt. “You want to have a catch?” applies to football, too, Hollywood.