Richard Martin

NFL Is An Elusive Topic For Filmmakers

Aug 06, 2014 5:41 PM EST

Part 1 of 2 in a series on football and Hollywood ...

The NFL has managed to produce awe-inspiring television revenues but a disappointing number of truly excellent films and good actors. Why? Well, football is a more difficult sport for moviemakers. Baseball focuses on one player, then another, making it easier to capture. Boxing is the ultimate mano-a-mano sport. 

Both of those other sports are the subject of truly great movies. In baseball, there’s “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham,” “The Natural,” “Eight Men Out,” “Pride of the Yankees” and the very dark “Cobb.” (“Babe” is pretty good, but perhaps not in that class.) 

Great boxing movies have included “The Champion,” “Raging Bull” and “Rocky.” There are many lesser attempts.

But what about football? Well, I would argue that the best is “North Dallas Forty,” based on Pete Gent’s account of America’s dysfunctional team, the Cowboys. (The team’s name as well as the characters were fictionalized.) 

“North Dallas Forty,” first of all, is a hoot and is well-acted throughout. (It’s easy to see Nick Nolte as a party animal, you have to say.) But it also touches on some major issues of the game such as injuries and medications, partying athletes, Scrooge-like owners and the Not For Long nature of the league. At the same time it dealt with these realities, it didn’t beat you over the head with anything.

Second on the list has to be “Semi-Tough,” a light comedy with a great performance by Burt Reynolds, who was surely made to be in football movies. Reynolds was a star recruited by Florida State but suffered a career-ending knee injury. (You wonder if he could’ve kept going if sports medicine were as advanced back then as it is now.) 

But that’s pretty much it. “Any Given Sunday” is one of Oliver Stone’s dimmest works — he just doesn’t care as much about football as he does about the Vietnam War, JFK’s killing and Central America. 

Shows or movies about the NFL are hurt by the fact that the teams’ names have to be fictionalized. The NFL is the most tightly regulated sport, and generally the rules have helped. But you can’t reproduce images of the NFL and the league would simply not cooperate with any production that flashed a light on any problems.

In that sense it’s like the military, which has an office that deals with all productions. Someone in that office has to sign off on the script before cooperation will be granted. That can be tough if your script has scenes with planes taking off from an aircraft carrier.

Of course, baseball movies also downplay any connection to anything happening now and focus on events long ago or on the minor leagues. Would anyone be bold enough to produce a movie about Pete Rose? Or, for that matter, steroids?

It’s tough to avoid falling into cliches about sports heroism, just as in war movies it hard to stay out of banalities about patriotism. If you make it a comedy, you defuse any controversy. Or you can go out of your way to avoid controversy. I have to admit I’d like to see a balls-out NFL movie, which dealt with injuries, off-the-field controversies, kooky nightlife, maybe redemption.

But I’m not holding my breath.