Back in the dark old days before Brett Favre came along and transformed my Green Bay Packers into an NFC juggernaut, my favorite NFL quarterback was Roger Staubach, an unlikely choice given that he was (1) a member of the dreaded Dallas Cowboys (2) who retired two years after I was born. To this day, I've never seen an entire game where Staubach was the field general. My fandom was based entirely on NFL Films' half-hour documentary about Super Bowl XIII, which I watched numerous times in grade school on ESPN along with similar docs about every other Super Bowl up to that time. The game on its own is one of the best Super Bowls ever, a 35-31 shootout between the 'boys and Steelers starring some of the biggest names in NFL history: Bradshaw, Swann, Harris, Lambert, Dorsett, "Too Tall" Jones. But there's no way the game–as exciting as it must have been to watch live–could top the NFL Films version, with its rousing orchestration, slow-motion action shots, and dramatic narration, all captured on glorious film instead of cheesy video tape. As the scrappy comeback kid of Super Bowl XIII, who almost led his team to victory against perhaps the greatest NFL team ever, the slow-mo Staubach was to quarterbacks what Steve McQueen was to cops–too cool to be true, even though Staubach really was.
When it comes to sports movies, football flicks can't hold a candle to films about boxing or baseball. But for more than 40 years, NFL Films has been the greatest promoter of the country's most popular game because its filmmakers have applied stylish cinematic techniques to convey–and pump up in the most hamfisted fashion—the energy and vitality of the NFL. If you have never seen an NFL Films production, imagine if Leni Riefenstahl made movies for the NFL instead of the Nazis, and you'll get a sense of the company's operatic, worshipful tone toward the game of football. In the glory days of the '60s, '70s, and early '80s, when "voice of God" John Facenda lent his formidable baritone to hyperbolic narration likening football to apocalyptic warfare, NFL Films obliterated the rest of the sports world–how could something as pastoral as baseball compete with a game where (adopt bad Facenda impression) two groups of men enter the field of battle, and one emerges as champion of the world, and the other returns home like a groom left at the altar. As corny as NFL Films docs can be–or downright deceptive when it comes to their annual team roundups, which can make even the worst clubs look like world-beaters–they are more exciting than their Hollywood counterparts. For all the flash of an Any Given Sunday or tried-and-true traditionalism of a Remember The Titans, most football movies make me wish directors were forced to study Super Bowl XIII in film school to learn how to properly use cinema to get the maximum emotional impact out of a game. As far as turning football into great drama goes, Steve Sabol is our greatest auteur. (Super Bowl XIII is my favorite NFL Films highlights movie, but I'm also a fan of Super Bowl XIX—the first non-Facenda doc–mainly because the narrator quotes from James Taylor's "Fire And Rain" to convey Dan Marino's pathos as his Dolphins fell to the 49ers, 38-16. That qualifies as hip in the NFL Films universe. Noel Murray did a great roundup of other top-notch Super Bowl films for The A.V. Club last year.) I'm gushing about NFL Films because I'm hooked on Hard Knocks, a reality show about the Kansas City Chiefs' training camp now airing at 9 p.m. CST Wednesdays on HBO. A joint effort with HBO Sports, Hard Knocks started in 2001 with then-Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and returned the following year with the Dallas Cowboys. Now back for the first time in five years, Hard Knocks is a more sober look at the game than the great NFL Films show of old, but it's no less compelling. Once again the authenticity inherent to NFL Films productions–along with its unfailing sense of good old fashioned storytelling–makes Hard Knocks a better and more insightful football TV show than the critically-adored Friday Night Lights, with its unconvincing game scenes and litany of usual off-the-field clichés. (I'm basing this on the few episodes I've seen, which left me cold, though given what some people have said about the show I'm looking to give it another chance.) An NFL team in some ways is an ideal documentary subject, because it's a subculture with clearly defined rules and easily observable consequences for violating those rules. In the first episode of Hard Knocks, a big deal is made about how veterans get to stay on the first floor of the training camp dorms while players with less tenure stay on the upper floors. (One veteran throws a fit when he gets stuck on the second floor.) In the most recent episode, the team's first-round draft pick is briefed by the team's media specialist on how to sound humble when reporters ask about his recent holdout. Then the young millionaire is taped to a goal post on the practice field and doused with ice water by his millionaire teammates. Like everything about the NFL–where grown men dress up in tight clothes and body armor and break each others bones during "family" hour on national TV–it only seems silly if you think about it. Many of the storylines on Hard Knocks come straight out of sports movies–the charismatic and obsessive head coach, the old pro vs. young upstart quarterback battle, the disgraced veteran trying to make a comeback–but they somehow don't seem as tired because, well, it's Herm Edwards this time and not Denzel Washington. But perhaps the most impressive thing about Hard Knocks is how it manages to spin engrossing storylines out of what is essentially the most tedious part of the NFL season. But NFL Films has always translated the game better than anybody, Facenda or no Facenda.