A Herculean Task Completed
It was a truly enjoyable evening at the Yale Club last night as about 250 people jammed the grand ballroom to see the premiere of 8: Ivy League Football and America. I will review the movie in a moment, but first I want to briefly describe the evening on a personal level.
I arrived at the Yale Club at about 6:15pm and ended up walking in with Yale Head Coach Jack Siedlecki and some other members of the Yale football contingent including legendary Bulldog Head Coach Carm Cozza. That would set the tone for the entire evening, as every time I turned around I recognized another Ivy great from the past or at least a major name from the Ivy football present.
Some other celebrities were there like Chris Berman from ESPN.
After chatting with co-producers Erik Anjou and Mark Bernstein, (who were both very gracious and outgoing), I eventually met up with Matt Sodl, and then Columbia's Director of Development for Athletics Mark Monty and my friend Mark Lufkin, who works under Mr. Monty in the Development office.
After the film, I spent a lot of time talking with Matt Sodl, but also with recent grads Matt Barsamian and Todd Abrams. Matt and Todd are both working in the New York area now and seem to be doing well after college and football, (much better than I was; during my first year after graduation I think I hid under the covers most of the time and cried).
I hope to have pictures and more "color" from the evening in the coming days.
Now my review:
Encapsulating 139 years of history in a film of any plausible length is a daunting task. The biggest hurdles are achieving historical accuracy, avoiding glaring omissions, and most importantly, emotionally engaging the audience.
The film passes the first test with a stunning A+ for historical accuracy. Stunning because each of the eight Ivy schools routinely make historical mistakes about THEMSELVES in their football media guides. It's so easy to get it wrong when it comes to scores, dates, and names. I saw NO mistakes of this kind in the film.
I give it an A- for avoiding glaring omissions. It's very tough not to leave something out, but I thought the only omission that truly was glaring was the lack of material about Ed Marinaro. Marinaro did make some key statements in the film, but some additional accounts of his stellar career at Cornell were needed.
Perhaps the biggest test for a documentary is whether it can induce an emotional response from the audience. Docs can be dry and it's hard to grab the audience's heart without a love interest or story arc like you see in dramatic films. In that vein the film succeeds however, mostly with humor, (the spontaneous laughter from the audience was frequent), but also with some heart-rending moments, most notably the sequence on the Cornell-Dartmouth "5th Down game" and even more so with the profiles of Columbia's Matt Sodl both from 1987 and today.
The film is mostly about the deep history of the league and the pre-1920's content is probably going to be too heavy for many casual viewers. But it routinely saves itself from becoming purely an academic exercise by keeping the individual interviews short and using humor at almost every key moment.
Some of the early still photos and film footage seen in the movie are absolutely shocking - shocking when you realize that it exists and shocking to actually see it.
The film does an especially good job identifying 5 key eras in Ivy history.
1) The first 25 years that were dominated by sheer violence just as the game's rules were being formed.
2) The game's rise to national prominence led by Ivy teams, especially
3) Penn and its president Harold Stassen's at first successful, but then failed, plan to be a national football power and academic power at the same time in the late 40's and early 50's.
4) The league's initial success with being less of a major draw nationally but still a source of huge football excitement, (the sequence on the '68 Harvard-Yale tie was particularly strong here)
5)The league's current struggle to find itself ever since the demotion to Division I-AA.
Now to the Columbia content. Because a good part of the movie focuses on the 1890's to the 1910's when there was little Columbia football due to the 1905-1915 ban... Columbia does not figure prominently in a key segment of the movie. However, a good effort is made to cover the 1933 Rose Bowl win, and the huge amount of time spent with Matt Sodl is easily the most emotive part of the film. Again, the movie's amazing historical accuracy keeps it from being guilty of unfairly treating any school, Columbia included.
Whether the film will have a wider appeal beyond the small Ivy football fraternity is not clear. But I would bet that if it ran on select PBS stations in Boston, NYC, and Washington, it would rate quite well.
And for anyone who reads this blog regularly, it is a "must-see." I will keep you updated on where and when to find the film whenever I know.