Tuesday, July 15, 2014

North Dallas Forty (1979) v. Any Given Sunday (1999)

I really like North Dallas Forty... I just wish it gave a little bit more. North Dallas Forty is one of those honest 1970s exposes that introduced the world to the things the media covered up for years. It has a cynical veneer, but a genuine heart. It is also the best movie it could have been given the time period it was made. To talk about where it works and where it doesn’t, let me compare it to Any Given Sunday, which is a cynical disappointment.

Written by Peter Gent, who played for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 until 1969, North Dallas Forty is widely considered an expose on the well-covered-up party-hard lifestyle of the Dallas Cowboys of the late 1960s as well as the NFL’s use of drugs to keep players playing through injuries.
The story centers around talented but aging wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte), who functions as our eyes into the secret world of the team. Through his eyes, we meet manipulative quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis), who is modeled after Don Meredith, cold-as-a-fish fundamentalist Christian Coach B.A. Strother (G.D. Spradlin), who is supposedly fairly close Tom Landry, assistant Coach Johnson (Charles Durning) who does Coach Strother’s dirty work, and an assortment of other characters. The team presented here mimics the Cowboys in many ways, like their obsession with computerizing their coaching and recruiting, their penchant for stunningly debauched parties that never made it into the news, drug use, some abusive practices, and tolerance for anything so long as the player has talent.
Along the way, the film exposes the cruel nature of the game as players find themselves ruthlessly discarded the moment they lose their value to the team, and on the issue of pain killers. Indeed, this film really acts as an expose on the widespread use of pain killers to keep these guys playing through career and body threatening injuries. Today, you probably already know about the pain killers, but when this film came out, this was a well-kept dirty little secret and people were shocked.

As the film progresses, we see the coaches abuse the players, the players rebel in their way, and the destructive culture of these teams which made these men both predators and victims at the same time. It was an eye opening film because of this, and nothing that has come since has been anywhere near as damning.

Indeed, consider Any Given Sunday. Any Given Sunday is Oliver Stone’s expose on the NFL. But nothing he presents in that film is even close to being as damning as what you see in North Dallas Forty. The reason is that everything Stone purports to tell you is already widely known. Moreover, rather than focus on something specific, Stone tosses every cliché he can find at you and then builds his entire film around the not-shocking idea that everyone uses everyone else... an idea he does to such excess that it’s just not believable. Indeed, in Any Given Sunday, the characters are openly evil. No one is innocent. They hate each other. They spew anger. They talk about taking each other’s jobs, they plot against each other, and they interfere with each other’s careers. The conflicts are cartoonish. The abuses excessive. And yet, there seem to be no genuine stakes; when its all over, everyone is better off than they were when they started.
In fact, subtlety is a key difference between these two films. North Dallas Forty is an amazingly subtle film. Take Coach BA: it’s never clear if BA is bad guy, is a dupe, or just turns a blind eye to bad things. There are several times where you get the sense that BA has told someone to do something rotten, but you never see it. Does he really use Nolte to get Delma to shoot up? Or does he just turn a blind eye? Does he support the owner ridding himself of Nolte and his contract? Is there some other reason he supports getting rid of Nolte? What is he really thinking? You never know because Spradlin turns in an amazingly subtle performance that at once seems to suggest a man taking a firm course of action, but at the same time, a man deeply conflicted about what is being done and who seems to want to stop what is happening but who may see himself as helpless... or not. It makes BA a compelling villain and you want... nay, you need to know what he really believes because your lack of understanding of his true movies pulls at you... it frustrates you.
Compare this to any character in Any Given Sunday. Each of those people does the rottenest thing they can do and then they turn to some nearby character and give soliloquies reveling in what they’ve done. There is zero subtlety. Did Coach D’Amato (Al Pacino) try to undermine mobile black quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) or betray his owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz)? Of course he did and, in case you aren’t sure, he gives you a five minute gloating speech about how he got away with it. In Any Given Sunday, everyone admits to being evil and revels in it. That is not true in North Dallas Forty at all.
In North Dallas Forty, there is one moment that confirms that Quarterback Maxwell is actually a villain. After Nolte quits the team, Maxwell is only concerned that his name was kept out of the investigation (an investigation Nolte didn’t even know about until moments before... so how does Maxwell know?). Nolte looks at his supposed best friend and says, “You know everything, don’t you Max?” Maxwell responds, “That I do.” This is it, but this moment speaks volumes. It tells you that all the manipulations, all the decisions Nolte fought throughout were all known to and support by Maxwell, who was never his friend but used him the same way he used every other player on the team. Any Given Sunday couldn’t do this level of subtlety, and because of that, North Dallas Forty feels like a film which unfolds deliberately and smacks you at the appropriate times, whereas Any Given Sunday clubs you over the head scene by scene so you never need to use your brain to follow the film.
Indeed, there are a great many moments in North Dallas Forty that you just couldn’t see in Any Given Sunday. No one ever talks about getting cut, but it hangs in the air throughout. Moreover, when Stallings is cut, you get this chilling exchange: Nolte says, “Can you believe they cut Stallings?” and Maxwell responds, “Who’s Stallings?” There is no over-the-top speech, but the message is clear: get cut and you are no longer part of the family. Take the issue of race. Jo Bob spews racist anger at a black player during the week, but before an important game he comes and wishes him a good game. There is no speech about unity or what matters, but this simple line ("Good game") says it all. Delma is told to know the difference between injury and pain to help the team, which is a subtle way to say he needs to learn to play when injured.
The characters in North Dallas Forty are amazingly well drawn too. First, they are still real people who look like you and me – the NFL was still populated by players like that in the 1970s. And they have different personalities and outside lives. You’ve got the guys who seem like retards, but then John Matuszak delivers an amazingly insightful speech (“Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game!”). You’ve got macho party animals, who you are told fear “falling on their asses in Chicago.” You have a deeply religious quarterback, drug addicts, a cynic, brownnosers, etc. Each character has his own story within the story. You learn that many don’t even know why they play. You see how easily they are cowed by their coaches. You get philosophy:
Elliot: “He’s here to remind us that the meanest and the biggest get to make all the rules.”
Charlotte: “I don’t agree with that.”
Elliot: “Agreement doesn’t enter into it.”
By comparison, Any Given Sunday is packed with prima-donna athlete stereotypes: narcissists who work out 24/7, who are incapable of uttering a non-football thought, and for whom the violence of the game has bled into their lives. And they do nothing but exist against this backdrop.
There isn’t a likable or interesting character in Any Given Sunday. They are all deeply cynical. They are rotten to the core. They are out to screw each other and they see other people as obstacles they must crush beneath them. Are there really such people in the world? Sure, but few make it to adulthood without being permanently relocated to prison.

Where North Dallas Forty does fail in my opinion is that its punch isn’t strong enough. Unfortunately, this is part of the era from which it was made. The 1970s just weren’t a time when films could get as cynical and dark as they can today, so their punch was limited. So what happens here is about as strong as the film could be made. But it would have been better to see a greater impact on Nolte. Nolte should have been shown losing something more dear to him. As it is, he is essentially fired from a game he can no longer play and which he isn’t even sure he wants to play anymore. It would have been better perhaps to make Nolte desperate to win a championship, only to have that stripped from him for getting a conscience. It would have been a darker ending, but a stronger one.



AndrewPrice said...

BTW, Despite the ill-advised poster, North Dallas Forty is not a comedy, not by any definition.

Kit said...

I have not seen either so I feel I cannot comment on the ending. But your reviews are good.

I take it the critics in New York and LA all prefer Any Given Sunday?

PikeBishop said...

Interesting: I was expecting a comparison between "North Dallas 40" and "Semi-Tough."

Mike said...

Spot on comparison! I read Gent's book not long after it came out and stumbled across it a while back, tucked away in a box in my storage building. It was stained, dusty and ruined by silverfish, but before I threw it away I took note of the price on the cover: $1.50. I was going to replace it, but the local book store would have had to order it for me and it was going to cost me nearly ten times that.

As is almost always the case, the book was much better than the movie. The ending of the movie wasn't happy - satisfying, but sad- and was similar to that part in the book, but the novel went on to have an even sadder - a horrifying and shocking - conclusion. True, the movie isn't a comedy, but there are laugh-out-loud scenes in the book. There was also misogyny, racism and mindless, steroid fueled violence.

You are also correct in your observation that Forty lacked punch and esp. does in comparison to the book. The Cowboys and NFL would probably sue to keep the movie from being remade today and while the use of painkillers in the league is currently headline news, the portrayal of the use of recreational drugs would bring the lawsuits. It DOES happen today, but thanks to random testing and suspensions for positive tests, I don't think it's nearly as ubiquitous as it was back then.

Dandy Don Meredith was interviewed when the book was released, asked if the Seth Maxwell character really was an accurate portrayal of him. I don't remember exactly what he said (I'm sure he denied it) but I do remember his comment about his relationship with Gent. "If I'd known Gent was as good as he says he was, I would have thrown to him more."

I have the soundtrack for Any Given Sunday - only because it was a present. I just added a DVD of Forty to my Amazon cart (Five bucks!), but I don't care if I ever see Sunday again.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen Any Given Sunday so I can't comment on it. As far as North Dallas Forty goes, this was a very insightful review. One of the observations that Gent's alter ego Phil Elliot made about B.A.Quinlan in the book was "The only good thing about B.A's bovine indifference to people was that you could lie your ass off to him and not get caught." That comes across in the movie.
Is B.A. an active villain? Does he just ignore what he doesn't want to see or does he cause it? G.D. Spradlin was an underrated character actor who gave a great performance as an unlikeable character without having to go over the top and do a Mussolini impersonation to let the audience know they weren't supposed to like him. Mac Davis did a great job as the guy you thought was Elliot's party buddy until that line at the end when you realized he was more sophisticated then he had spent the movie letting on. The line before that exchange is telling too. They're discussing the meeting wear Elliot is released and Davis says "My name come up?" That tells you two things. Seth Maxwell is more concerned for himself than he is for Phil Elliot, and Maxwell knows that he is also just a cog in the machine. Management has the goods on him too,and they're waiting until his skills begin to deteriorate to drop the hammer.
I disagree with you about the end. Off the top of my head the 70's had The Parallax View.The Deer Hunter,Deliverance, The Excorsist (?) and The traw Dogs. Bonnie And Clyde and The Wild Bunch had come out in the sixties. There were plenty of films that had dark endings or dealt with dark material by 1979. I just think that for whatever reason that's the ending the filmmakers went with. Maybe it tested better, I don't know. What I do know is that I like the ending. I had bonded with the character of Phil Elliot by the end of the movie and I was glad to see him set free to get on with his life. North Dallas Forty was a great book but the ending was devastating.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Kit! The critics are mixed. Neither film was overwhelming liked or disliked, but Any Given Sunday rated about a 50% among critics. North Dallas scores an 85%, but that's largely after the fact and it's now recognized as a classic.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That would have been good too, but I think these two films really are kindred (yet very different) spirits.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mike! I'm glad you agree. :)

I feel the same way. If I never see Any Given Sunday again, I honestly won't miss it. I would miss not seeing North Dallas Forty again and it is in my collection.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, Thanks! I'm glad you think so!

BA fascinates me. There is something so villainous and creepy about him, yet it's so hard to say exactly why and you almost feel like he could be a good guy deep down. It's an excellent bit of acting that manages to project these contradictory ideas at the same time without feeling fake or impossible and while leaving you with just enough doubt about what he really is that you find yourself super curious as to who he really is.

When you see Phil appeal to him in the meeting at the end, for a brief moment, you almost think BA's going to side with Phil. Then he falls back into his "safe zone"... "You let down the team." This is clearly a man who does not like anything happening around him, but doesn't know how to dig his way out of it and doesn't have the courage to take his own actions.

You make a really interesting point about the ending. By the ending, you really have bonded with Elliott and it is a strange sort of feel good ending that he just walks away happily. I even love how he intentionally drops the ball as if to say, "I'm done with you, friend." So you are right that adding a nastier ending would hurt the film.

Still, the film somehow feels like it lacks punch.

Koshcat said...

I haven't seen North Dallas 40 because I thought it was a stupid comedy (Marketing failure). I have seen Any Given a few times and although I like it, it seems to be missing something. I think it is a character you can like the two closest are Dennis Quaid and Jamie Foxx. Neither are evil. Quaid the old QB losing his touch and his drive and Foxx the young brash but naïve QB on the way up. Either of these characters could have been your "hero" but they weren't developed adequately. I don't think the movie will age as well. It is a very cynical view of football and I get the feeling that Stone doesn't really like the game (or because he is such a lefty, he doesn't like the business). Unfortunately, Any Given is probably close to reality which is a little sad for the players and the game.

Tennessee Jed said...

a good comparison, Andrew. I read Gent's book well before it was made into a film. Despite being a "novel" it was obviously a thinly disguised recounting of his own story and experience. The time it was released, the whole counter culture thing was coming on strong. I think the point was mainly 1) Merideth was a drunk and party boy who only cared about himself 2) Athletes are real people 3) Despite the All American image, pro sports didn't care about their employees. Chew them up and spit them out. I saw any given Sunday .... kind of saw it as a more modern look at ownership. The only thing that matters is increasing the vakue of the asset. Winning and losing?? No matter, as long as you increase value

Anonymous said...

Thanks! You're right about the meeting at the end. There's a moment after BA has thrown his lot in with management. They've screwed Elliot over. He's off the team and out of his livelihood. He's about to leave the office for the last time. There's a moment where Phil Elliot is nakedly vulnerable. He looks at BA and says "I was good,when I played, wasn't I BA?" And BA nods. Not dismissively. Not sarcastically. He sincerely and empathetically nods and you feel just for a moment that BA Quinlan wishes this could have gone differently. Then the moment is gone.
Interestingly, Pete Gent didn't hate Tom Landry. I'm sure they didn't go on many fishing trips together, but Gent's feelings towards Landry were mixed. D magazine gave Pete Gent an assignment to interview Tom Landry after NDF (the book) had come out and he did it. Afterwards he was asked if he was surprised that Landry talked to him. Gent said "I knew he'd talk to me because I knew that in the final analysis Landry would be fair."
That complexity comes across in Spradlin's portrayal of BA Quinlan.

Anonymous said...

For anyone interested, Pete Gent wrote two other novels about pro football that are well worth the time. One was North Dallas After 40. It centers around a Dallas team reunion. Gent was still himself and he hadn't sold out, but he wasn't as angry and it's a good read. Another was The Franchise which doesn't feature Phil Ellliot but is about the down and dirty workings of the management and ownership of a pro football team. It's a good read.
And Andrew, I read about your health issues over at commentaramapolitics. I wish you all the best. Take all the time you need for a thorough recovery.
All best thoughts.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I can't understand the choice of poster. This is definitely not a comedy.

I agree about Any Given Sunday. The real problem is that there's just no one to like and that's because the story doesn't focus on the characters, it focuses on the scandals and the nasty little moments. It's basically a 3 hour montage of everything rotten Stone could think to include. And I agree that he doesn't like the game. Gent is obviously down on the people he played with, but his love/obsessive love of the game still comes through. Stone always feels like an outsider lobbing stones.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, As a long suffering Buccaneers fan, that is something I know all too well. For two decades, the Bucs were the most profitable team in the league because their payroll was less than half of the better teams. All the owner cared about was money, not being a good team.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, I find that meeting really fascinating. At first, BA seems to be part of "the establishment." But then Elliott challenges him to speak his mind. For a moment, you see BA want to say, "You're right, this is not how it's supposed to be." But then something comes over him and he gets angry and he decides to speak for himself... not the team or anyone else. And that's when he whips out the "you hurt the team" stuff that sounds like "you betrayed me." And then Elliott suddenly sees the truth. It's a fascinating moment.

Honestly, I have a hard time seeing BA as Landry, though I can see some similarities. And Landry always struck me as rather fair and decent.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Thanks on the well wishes. :)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great reviews, Andrew!
I concur that NDF is a far better film than AGS. I have no desire to see AGS again but I will watch NDF again every so often.

I'm a bit surprised at how well Mac Davis acted and wonder why he never made

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hmm, somehow my comment got cut off. I would've liked to see Davis in more films besides NDF and The Sting 2. I see he didsome tv and broadway shows but not much else so either he's more happy singing and songwriting or he just wasn't pursued for more films.

KRS said...

Koshcat, you mentioned that you don't think Stone likes football.

I have long wondered, does Oliver Stone like anything? When I watch one of his movies, it always seems to be a such a banquet of cynicism and anger that I feel the need to watch a dozen Looney Tunes afterwards, or take a shower.

Seriously, he's the most miserable one-percenter in America.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

KRS, good point. Stone always strikes me also as very bitter and it shows in his films.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

My main quibble with Gent is that he was a bitter anti-authoritarian type. Tom Landry, by most accounts was distant to be sure. The sad thing about an asshole like Pete Gent is he's so bent on getting his way NOW that he doesn't take the long view and has no grace or forgiveness. Landry was a genius, typical WW2 combat veteran type (he flew a couple of dozen or so missions as a B-17 co-pilot and survived a crash landing).

Luckily Landry's reputation survived Gent's slander as evidenced by the outpouring of affection by most of his players as he got sick and then died.

Now the movie... North Dallas Forty is a great movie for what it is -- a highly biased fiction with some real aspects. Don Meredith was abysmally treated by the fans in Dallas and I wager his portrayal is somewhat accurate. but the Coach is a caricature. Normally I wouldn't care, but Gent was to football what Dan Brown is to art history -- his novels are Truth -- or so he claims and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Oliver Stone? The less said the better.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, I take North Dallas Forty as "informed fiction." Basically, I accept the gist of it -- the parties, the drugs, the out-of-control personalities, and that a lot of these people aren't as nice as we think they are, but I don't hold any of the characters against any real person. In that regard, I see this as total fiction. And the reason I accept the "informed" part is because most of what he presents seems to have been true about the NFL in general and to a large degree seems to be continuing today.

As an aside, when it comes to Tom Landry, count me among those who have total respect for the man. I never knew Meredith, but Staubach was my hero and Landry struck me as the ultimate coach.

On Stone, I see Any Given Day as bad fiction. None of the conflicts he invents feel realistic and the characters are all cliches.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! That's another good measure of a film -- desire to see it again. I honestly don't care if I never see Any Given Sunday again, but I would miss not seeing North Dallas Forty again.

AndrewPrice said...

As an aside, I just finished reading North Dallas Forty the book. I find it interesting that this movie was made from that book. The movie is much more streamlined and focused. It's also MUCH more pleasant than the book.

The book is largely one continuing drug trip and the main character (Phil) is odious. Every page he's taking more drugs (an incredible amount), insulting people whose only crime seems to be that he doesn't like them, and whining about being afraid of everything. His jokes are of the "annoy you" and "make fun of you" variety rather than the "humorous" category. And he's not charming in any way.

BA comes across as much more reasonable in the book if only because Phil is much more unreasonable. In the film, BA comes across as obsessive about control and borderline evil, but in the book he comes across more as someone who has simply reached his limits with Phil's misconduct causing problems.

The book also deals constantly with race and it does so unfairly. In scene after scene, the white characters are presented as openly racist to the point of advocating the killing of blacks. Dallas is indicted as a racist and murderous city.

Charlotte is just as pointless in the book as in the film, but the ending involving her is shocking and unearned.

Post a Comment