Gifford. Cosell. Meredith. There was more action in the booth than there was on the field.
Believe it or not, there was a time in the life of the professional football player when, once the final game was completed and the off-season arrived, they had to find a job. In these days of escalated salaries and even larger delusions of cultural importance, it's hard to imagine that a star athlete would have to go out and sell paint, shill used cars, or broker stock deals. But there was an era in the game's legacy when it was just that: a game. It was not a career, or a means of future financial independence. It may have gotten you out of high school and into a decent college, but no one was getting rich off the NFL. Not the coaches, the players, not even the owners. For them, the sport was a passion, a fiscal folly to foster their love of athletics with a sense of social enrichment. But this wasn't baseball. No one called it the National Pastime. Important play-off games could be interrupted for episodes of Lassie and the Super Bowl had commercial time to spare. Before the hype and the hoopla and the commentators and the analysts, eleven men on each side would take the field and fight for a small amount of honor before heading home to their modest middle class lives. That was, until Monday Night Football came along. It changed everything. I should know. I was there.
Facts of the Case
In 1969, as the fledgling AFL merged into the powerful and traditional NFL, the league pitches a series of televised, Monday night football games to all three television networks. Only ABC expresses any interest. Roone Arledge knows that, if presented properly with the right combination of excitement, hype and personality, Monday Night Football (as the show was to be called) will be a huge hit. And instead of the standard, boring analysis offered by the competitors, ABC could stir things up by presenting three distinct, individual voices in the announcer's booth. After scouring other networks and their own ranks, Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell are plucked from their standard sports duties to become two of the chosen three. On the advice of good friend Frank Gifford (unable to join the team because of a contract with rival CBS), Don Meredith is given the nod. His good old boy goofiness is the perfect foil to Cosell's mannered pomposity.
At first, the show is a disaster. Nothing works, the games are boring, and there is little or no chemistry between the announcers. But little by little, a repertoire builds between Cosell and Meredith. Soon, the public is focusing on the dynamics between the personalities as much as the games. When Gifford becomes available, Arledge muscles out Jackson (sending him to College Football where he would shine for almost 30 years) and the classic lineup that would change televised sports was in place. They instantly become the talk of the industry. Monday Night Football becomes a rating juggernaut. In between his gambling and womanizing, director Chet Forte, along with input from Arledge, creates a before unknown excitement in broadcast sports, one less concerned with X's and O's and more on the drama, the stories inside the game. It is a very popular formula.
But it also breeds unforeseen problems. The NFL demands more money. Meredith feels belittled by Cosell and trapped in his country cornpone role. Cosell hates the "jockocracy," the philosophy of ex-athletes as announcers that permeates the booth. He longs to instill the broadcast with intelligence and analysis. Gifford is viewed and ridiculed as a mistake-prone and mispronouncing moron, when he is really just intimidated by the popularity of the show. As egos and vices blur the line between job and justification, the entire enterprise threatens to implode. Arledge moves on to a bigger job with the network. Meredith leaves, but finding no greener pastures at NBC, returns (if only for a short stay). Various other combinations are tried, but none capture the spirit of the original group. When Cosell makes what is mistakenly considered a racial slur and is forced out, it marks the end of Monday Night Football as a national obsession. While it still exists today, it is no where near what it was back then, during its formative years.
It is unusual for myself, as a judge, to step into the first person and write a review from an internal perspective. My attempts at film criticism have always been just that: more about structure and analysis and less about my own personal loves or hang-ups. Sure, I can be flip and funny when dealing with cinematic failure, and I will impose my fixations and fascinations on those movies I am in awe with. But generally, I abide by the Harlan Ellison dictum when it comes to offering my take on a movie or DVD. To paraphrase: "Everyone is not entitled to their opinion. Only their learned one." Anyone can say "I liked this film" or "this DVD sucks" without offering any support or interpretation. The trick is to provide evidence as to why your opinion is valid. That is why I prefer to write in the third person. It is easier to convey the reasons why I loved or hated a film in that format. The minute I insert "I" into a review, it becomes a personal account, not a review per se. So I have used it infrequently or not at all. Until now. For you see, I am the son of a famous football personality who served the NFL in those seminal years. From the time I was cognizant, until my early twenties, football was an all-encompassing part of my life. And I remember the first time MNF came to Soldier's field in Chicago.
It was October of 1972. My father, Abe Gibron, was in his first season as team Head Coach. On the 23rd, the biggest game of his career was taking place. The Bears would host Monday Night Football at Soldier's field (the newly renovated Soldier's field). The Bears had appeared on MNF twice before in games at Detroit and Miami. But this would be the first time for the toddling town to play patron to the biggest sporting event in television. At this point, MNF was a cultural icon, the kind of show people talked about on Tuesday morning and the focus of vicious debate over its pop culture significance. At the center of all of it was Cosell, the national villain or hero, depending on your leanings. He was the symbolic center and opinionated voice of the show. And he was the man I wanted to meet. So on that cold fall evening, the Minnesota Vikings came to Chi-town to play their dreaded division rivals. And Monday Night Football came to present it. Since I was the head coach's son, I got to see the preparations: the lighting, the camera positions, all the technical work. I also got to stand on the sidelines dressed in an official Bears coaching staff shirt (which I still have…somewhere) to watch the game. And it is here, before kickoff that night, where I meet the MNF crew.
Meeting the announcing team is one of those odd memories you carry with you the rest of your life, like extras pounds or oddly placed body hair. It doesn't consume your memories on a daily basis, but it permanently colors your life. It's similar to that classic moment in Citizen Kane: the vision of the woman in the white dress and parasol. Meeting Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, and Howard Cosell was a formative experience for me. Now, I had met famous people in my time. I was around, and even edited out, of Brian's Song when it was filmed. (If you want to know the that story, email me) I have vivid memories of a ride home for a dinner party crushed between James Caan and Jack Warden in the back of my father's Cadillac. It was an unreal life; one filled with scripted responses to reporters phone calls and inferred personal responsibility for the team's poor performance by classmates. But on that cold night, dressed in my coach's shirt that was a little too big and my itchy wool suit pants, I watched as these three cultural icons walked toward me (mind you, my father and George Halas were flaunting them—sometimes one does need a camera). Meredith and Gifford were, let's face it, ex-players acting as broadcasters and they shook your hand like they were preparing to tuck it under their arm and run for the end zone. It was a standard, yet somewhat pointless, showing of power and prowess. They gave me a cursory "hello" and moved on.
And then I shook Cosell's hand. Cigar clinging to his lower lip like an exclamation point to his every phrase, his grip was lighter, more professional. I was shaking his hand, not measuring the strength or skill he had. He was not the caricature that cartoonists and comics had created. He seemed an intellectual lost in a world of buffoons. I have never been able to look at any other version of Cosell other than the one that remains in my mind's eye to this day. Bundled in his overcoat, stylish hat cocked to one side, he removed the cigar from his mouth, flicked the ash to one side, and instead of the standard greeting, he said: "Coach Halas, is this the future Hall of Famer you told me about?" He winked at me. "Master Gibron, you are indeed a chip off the All Pro block." He patted my father on the back, who beamed as it he has just received a benediction. For me, well, I hated those words. Even at 11, I hated that sentiment. To reduce my relevance to the world into terms of potential football performance discarded any and all of my other facets in favor of one that, frankly, I was only mediocre at. As the statement hung in their air in an uneasy silence, the group turned to leave. But as they walked away, Cosell turned back and said to me: "Just remember, young Abraham. A man is not who he should be. A man is who he is."
The image of those five men of sport walking away is one that instills a great sense of loss and sentiment in me. Not for the people as such, but for the time. There was an innocence and honesty about the game back then that has been lost as the years have passed. In some ways, it's a shame that fans can't see what it was like. As a reflection of, and a factual breakdown of football's rise from recreation to super sport, Monday Night Mayhem is lacking. Frankly there is no way any film could cover the concept adequately. When Oliver Stone announced he was making a football film, I was excited. Here was someone who had the ability to take decades of material (the Kennedy assassination, Nixon, the US involvement in Vietnam) and present it in a condensed, artistic fashion that maximized details as it painted overriding themes across the screen. Well, Any Given Sunday was not the film I hoped for, and there is still a great movie out there waiting to be made about the formation and rise of the NFL. At least Monday Night Mayhem is true to its primary subject. While it skimps on many of the sport stories, it does a good job of showing why and how Monday Night Football became the institution it is today. It tracks the rough starts and lousy broadcasts. It explores the risks taken by Roone Arledge and ABC to offer a sport known mostly for its bruising violence as prime time entertainment.
And it does a good job of showing how Howard Cosell changed the face of sports broadcasting and journalism. His "love it or hate it" presence was the reason why Monday Night Football became so popular so fast. Opinionated and intelligent, he challenged the average sports fan to appreciate these titan wars (be they on the field or in the square circle) for something other than their grit and grunts. There were stories here. There were parallels to other issues in the world. There was art in the trenches and heart in the souls of battling gladiators. Cosell may have sounded arrogant and self-important, and that was part of his charm (and undoing). While he may have milked the language for all of its flowery essence, the one thing you knew about Cosell was that he was telling you the truth. He wasn't selling you an ignorant or ill-conceived concept. When he left Monday Night Football, the film shows us that it was society, not Cosell, who had changed. America had metamorphosed around him, from a place that celebrated knowledge to a society that thought it knew better. I heard Cosell the night he used the "little monkey" comment. He had said it many times before. It was a new world order that read something into it and demanded redress.
And John Turturro's performance will be the main issue people will have here. He is asked to carry the film, to be the main cog linking the old mentality toward sport's tradition with the new commercial enterprise of athletics as entertainment. It is Cosell's personal and professional life we explore, his many trials and tribulations. And placing all that on Turturro's performance is a tough proposition. My memories of meeting the man on that fateful night in Chicago, and watching him over the years, clouds the issue even more. To me, Turturro sounds nothing like Cosell, and the first time I watched the film, I found his amateur night grade school impression highly aggravating. It's too nasal, too guttural. But having seen the movie three times since then, including the viewing for this review, I was amazed on how well Turturro inhabited Cosell as a person. He may not have the voice right, but he does capture the need to be loved and respected, from the brass at the networks to the ordinary fan (or son of a coach). HBO's recent documentary on Howard, Telling It Like It Is, presented a fascinating, far more factual account of the man's life. Monday Night Mayhem is not as fascinating or in-depth as that film. But the story it tells, of Cosell, the NFL, and ABC's rise to national prominence on the shoulders and syllables of this and other talented, flawed individuals, is engaging. It shows that, no matter how compelling the package, you need the proper pitchmen to win over the public.
In many ways, this is a much more compelling inside entertainment industry story, one detailing how television owners and executives strategized and manipulated their staff and competitors to see MNF succeed (ABC, NFL) or fail (CBS, NBC). And director Ernest Dickerson does a masterful job with good casting, intelligent script work, and some sly cinematic tricks of bringing this story to life. He also employs music montages, accurate fashion and scenic design, and the uncanny likeness of his actors to their counterparts to re-imagine reality. His camera is also a witness and a comment to what is going on. There is one shot in particular, once Gifford is on the team, where he and Meredith leave Cosell behind to meet up with some jock buddies. As the fans and cars pull away and Turturro is left standing in the shadow of a stadium, the camera pulls back ever so slightly to accentuate how small and alone he must be feeling. This is the sign of a great director. But Dickerson also has some good old-fashioned technical fun. He employs Forrest Gump style tricks to show Cosell (Turturro) talking with Muhammad Ali and the crew discussing sports with then President Nixon. He uses interesting dissolves and unusual editing techniques. Knowing what I know about professional sports and television back then, I am amazed at his ability to convey a warts-and-all approach, even if small screen censorship keeps a lot of the randy material in check. Chalk that up to Dickerson's talent. He deserves the majority of the credit for this compelling time capsule.
Warner Brothers doesn't do much with their DVD presentation of Monday Night Mayhem. We get a very nice full screen image (while I am not sure, I thought this was originally presented in a sort of widescreen on TNT. I could be wrong) with great clarity and definition. Sound wise, there are a couple of problems. First off, the musical score by Van Dyke Parks, supplemented with old pop song references sounds far better, and more up front in the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround than the voices and dialogue. And on two separate occasions in conversations between Roone Arledge (John Heard) and Cosell, the sound is distorted and overmodulated. It is possible this existed in the original element. Or it could be a DVD mastering problem. The thing, however, that really irks me about the disc is the utter lack of extras. This was a major movie for TNT on a major theme. Couldn't they let Dickerson, more famous for his urban dramas, speak about what brought him to this project and the effort for authenticity in a full-length commentary? Or maybe just an interview? I am sure TNT did some press for this film, how about adding some of that self-serving material here. Instead, we get a weak set of cast and crew biographies that list several names, but only allow access to two or three. Overall, you should consider this nothing more than a title-only offer. And with a story as compelling and brimming with additional information as this, that's a shame.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's hard for me to say, personally what people will not like about this movie. For someone knowing nothing about sports it will seem very inside and revealing. For those who know a little more, flaws like Turturro's voice or brother Nicolas' wise guy workout may be problematic. And there will be those who wish to nitpick over timelines and the lack of football in a film about its chief media champion. Honestly, no amount of television time could tell the story of where modern sports went wrong, when big fat paychecks were more important that team or talent. Sure, Monday Night Mayhem is cursory and glosses over many of the important milestones in the show's history. And its fails to compel as a sharp social commentary or Network style indictment of the industry. But perhaps it never meant to do this. Perhaps its goal was to simply be the story of how three divergent characters with varying degrees of ability transformed a stupid idea into a longstanding tradition. On this level it does work. And maybe that's all that matters.
My tenure as a Monday Night Football fanatic ended on a warm December night in 1980, as I sat in Florida, watching a game between the Dolphins and the Patriots. It was a compelling game, but I was only half-paying attention when Howard Cosell broke in. His voice was lower and less animated than usual. He took a deep breath and then spoke another set of words, ones that I will again never forget. He announced that John Lennon, former Beatle, had been shot outside of his New York apartment. He was dead. I remember the world actually stopped spinning on its axis for me that moment. For that unreal split second of shock, I could sense the cosmic brakes slamming down, and felt many lives and dreams dashed. Tears filled my eyes. The game continued. Cosell was apologetic and marched ahead. I turned the channel to some news and sat in quiet disbelief. I took some phone calls from friends. We laughed some. Mostly we cried the kind of shallow, painful tears of disassociation one uses to try and remove the reality from what we were feeling. Cosell's handling of that tragic circumstance is recreated in Monday Night Mayhem, and it reopened that wound in me. There is a resonance and truth to the film that, flawed and all, makes it an accurate recreation and compelling tale of how sports and Monday Night Football became a way of life for so many in the US. But no one really had to convince me of that. Like I said before, I should know. Unfortunately, I was there.
Monday Night Mayhem is a good, but occasionally flawed look at the rise of the NFL and Monday Night Football to preeminence in the popular culture. All participants are acquitted.
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