The NFL’s four-month lockout finally ended this week. It’s time to gear up for the new season! Set the proper mood by dipping into NFL Films’ vast archives for some of the best sports documentary films around. Football is the sport most like a great drama. Its long drives, swings in momentum, and play-to-play format mimic great narratives. And NFL Films knows just how to capture that story in the operatic fashion that befits the game.
Start with The Comeback, perhaps the most remarkable and exciting game in the NFL’s near 100-year history. NFL Films captures the beautiful swing of emotions with typical aplomb, as the Buffalo Bills rally from a 35-3 deficit in the third quarter to win in overtime, 41-38. An even-handed approach, which points out the various breaks and officiating blunders that aided the Bills in their comeback, adds to the authenticity. The use of eerie, Twilight Zone-esque music over a montage of momentum-turning plays is an unusual and highly effective touch.
Follow that up with Super Bowl X, which pits the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Dallas Cowboys. Ah, this is NFL films at its most quintessential. Unlike later films, this highlight reel is devoid of any game sound – no miked players or crowd noises – but this gives the match a feel of heightened reality, adding to the drama and tension. Terry Bradshaw unspooling an epic pass to Lynn Swann for the winning points (to the tune of one of Sam Spence’s best-known, Western-inspired NFL Films marches) as John Facenda oakenly intones, “The result is Super Bowl history” is the essence of the NFL Films aesthetic. The camera whipping back across the field from Swann’s exultant celebration to the aftermath Bradshaw’s crushing, game-ending concussion at the other end of the field exemplifies the thrilling extremes of sport as well as any film I can think of. (Plus, just how did the cameraman know to do that? It’s uncanny.) It’s not the only great moment . . . look for the sad shot of a Cowboy supporter drying her tears, the coaches craning their necks to see the result of Roger Staubach’s final pass, the snappy, mythic narration (“Roy Gerela’s aching ribs and bruised psyche did not engender much confidence at this juncture of the game. But the kick was true”) and more.
Then turn your attention to any doc dealing with Joe Montana, whose flair for dramatic finishes is unrivaled and a perfect match for the theatrical sensibilities of NFL Films. Take your pick . . . their multiple angle appreciation of his flawlessly thrown pass in Super Bowl XXIV in a rout of the Broncos, their iconic film record of Dwight Clark’s gravity-defying catch from Montana in 1981, or their chronicle of his storybook game-winning drive for the 1988 championship. Montana, NFL Films . . . it’s a pairing made in sports DVD heaven!
Finish by watching a few episodes of America’s Game. NFL Films alters its approach somewhat here, moving the focus from the on-field action to the personal stories of the players who lived the games. Each of the 40+ Super Bowl seasons are chronicled by three key players, with game footage used only to supplement the overall narrative. A testament to NFL Films’ ability to reinvent itself, these docs are watchable even if you aren’t a fan of the team in question.