One of the abiding mysteries of film criticism is why there are so few good football movies. Americans football consistently gets higher ratings than baseball, yet when it comes to film, the drama on the big screen never quite seems to capture or measure up to the drama of the small screen the way that films like Bull Durham and The Natural do for their sport.
Nina Gilden Seavey’s documentary does its part at making up for this strange imbalance, chronicling six athletes from a prestigious junior college program in San Francisco who hope to eventually play football for a more prestigious Division I school and, perhaps, eventually in the National Football League.
As the title alludes to, this dream is a long shot. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported that over 1.1 million young adults participated in high school football in 2010-11. There are thirty-two NFL teams, each with a roster of 53 active players. Do the math and…well, you will see the importance of learning how to do the math when you are in school dreaming of an NFL career.
The stereotype of the football player is too often that of the “dumb” jock, and even the head coach at City College of San Francisco admits that the many of the players who find themselves at the junior college level do so because of academic rather than athletic reasons. One of the real pleasures, then, of the film is seeing how articulate these young men can be–even if at times their wisdom comes from hard earned experiences. When one of the players describes how the NFL training camps disadvantage undrafted players since teams have an incentive to keep players they have already invested money in, it serves as a metaphor for the challenges of breaking into any highly competitive field.
Reminiscent of Steve James’s Hoop Dreams, 4th and Goal is as much a sociology treatise as it is a sports documentary. While it lacks the focus (and hence the depth) of the more iconic basketball film, it does give viewers a glimpse of the system of professional football works and how its success impacts a whole series of cottage industries built off that success. At 91 minutes, the film feels a bit slight. One wishes there had been more about race, more about persistence, more about the actual mechanics of class work. Also the amount of actual football footage was less than I expected. Some of that paucity may be a result of broadcasting rights. By picking six athletes to follow instead of one or two, the film actually risks diluting its most interesting parts and becoming a thinly-disguised mystery/guessing game. Which one do we think is going to make it?
Those are critiques of how the film might have been better, but what we have is still an interesting and informative peep hole into a world that few of us ever see…one that turns out to be markedly different from what we might expect.