By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Ugly side of football.
From the very first frame this film grabs your attention. We see football wide receiver Phil Elliot (Nick Nolte) sleeping in his bed with blood spewing out of his nose and soaking his pillow in red. He wakes up and ambles his way to the bathroom looking like a man of 80 instead of 30. We come to realize that his nose is broken and he sleeps with tissue stuffed up his nostril to keep it from bleeding worse than it really does. We soon learn that this is all part of the business. A player is expected not only to play with pain, but live with it as well. Watching Nolte deal with this is so convincing that it will make you feel like you’re having the same symptoms and bring back vivid memories of any physical discomfort that you once had. It gets so bad that when he is making love to his girlfriend he is having to tell her to switch positions, or not touch certain parts of his body because even sex ends up being too painful. When you read about how many players suffer from lifelong injuries from their playing days you feel almost insulted at how other sports movies seem to gloss over it like it is no big deal when it really isn’t.
The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Peter Gent, who once played wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Although fictionalized to a certain extent one can’t help but see the ugly truth seeping through. Many of the characters closely resemble star Cowboy players from that era including the Mac Davis character Seth Maxwell who has the same personality as real-life quarterback Don Meredith. There is also B.A. Strother (G.D. Spradlin) who resembles legendary coach Tom Landry. Like Landry he seems devoutly religious and even quotes scripture, but he also is very cold, calculating, and psychologically manipulative.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film and found it riveting from beginning to end. If only all films could be this revealing and honest. The ‘feel good sports movie’ can be nice, but it is becoming too much of a cliché. Most players that get into the business don’t win Superbowls, or championships. They becomes used and abused by a relentless system until their only goal is simple survival and trying not to be cut. Of course I have never played football, but I don’t think the viewer really has to, to appreciate the dead-on truth that is displayed here. Simply being out in the ‘real world’ and working in corporate America should be enough for just about anyone to connect to what the characters here go through.
The dialogue is exceptional and endlessly quotable. Every scene and conversation dissects another ugly side of the business. Some of it is expected, but other parts become rather startling particularly the way players are pushed to play with injuries in order to ‘help the team’ even if there is a strong possibility that it could cause serious and permanent harm. Some may say things have gotten better, or worse since this was made, but I can’t help but feel that if anything it pretty much the same in a lot of ways, which is why I still maintain that this film is quite possibly the best sports movie ever made.
You also gotta love Charles Durning as the assistant coach constantly carrying with him a bottle of Maalox and looking like the one doing most of the coaching and disciplining while coach Strother stands at a calculated distance. The scene where Durning screams at the players during a team prayer giving in the locker room by a priest is the film’s single most funniest moment. Bo Svenson has one of his best roles playing the very large and intimidating player who goes from being obnoxious and even frightening at parties to looking dumb, confused, and even scared during the games. The only actor I wasn’t impressed with was John Matusek, who was a real-life pro player for a while. It was nice seeing a well-built actor to compliment Svenson, but Matusek just does not have the ability to deliver his lines with any dramatic impact and the fiery tirade that gives Durning at the end fails to be as strong as it should’ve been.
The only other problem I had with this film is the scenes involving the actual game itself. It doesn’t in any way resemble a pro game. The field is small and looks like it was shot at a high school. The crowd is darkened out, looking like there were no spectators at all. I also didn’t like the way director Ted Kotcheff incorporated dramatic music during certain key segments. It came off as heavy-handed and unnecessary. Of course the team’s uniforms and logos look tacky and although this is a little distracting you can’t blame this on the filmmakers as the NFL refused to endorse the film because of its frank nature.
This film hasn’t mellowed at all with age and I was surprised how potent it still is. I would recommend this to anyone, sports fan, or not, who wants to see the game from a different perspective by a player who was there.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: August 3, 1979
Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video