Winning Mayhem

January 15 , 2002
Winning Mayhem
By Ric Sweeney

Confession before I even get into my review of TNT’s original movie, Monday Night Mayhem: for some unknown reason, I take perverse joy in watching films that reference the Oilers. Silly, I know; but like nudity, a well-placed Oiler reference earns even the worst movies at least one star from me.

Among the more notable films that have managed to squeeze in a nod to Luv Ya Blue: Cast Away, Three Kings, EdTV, Lone Star and the obscure, seldom-seen Middle Age Crazy with Bruce Dern, which earned an extra ½ star by also throwing in an Earl Campbell mention. In fact, when it comes to celluloid Oiler references, Crazy is the Holy Grail.

So, obviously, there was a side agenda to watching last night’s premier of Mayhem. I mean, I would’ve watched it regardless, but knowing two of Monday Night Football‘s most memorable moments involved the Oilers (the first, in 1972, when a fan flips off the nation at the end of an Oiler loss; easily one of the five funniest things in television history, and, of course, Campbell’s watershed 1978 performance against Miami, a game still, to this day, talked about in reverential tones), I figured this would be Oiler fan Nirvana.

Not even close.

They accurately recreate the bird scene, but fail to mention the Oilers or that it happened at the Astrodome. Later, Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell talk about how well they worked together without third wheel Don Meredith in the “Houston game”, which, I’m quite certain, is a reference to the classic Miami game (Meredith didn’t work that night), but they never mention the game itself, the fans, the pompoms, nothing.

So, final tally on Mayhem‘s Oiler references: bitter disappointment all around. In fact, not only does Mayhem not earn the coveted extra star (it’s airing on commercial TV, so no nudity, either), I’m actually going to have to set a precedent and deduct a ½ star. Yep. When the material cries out for an Oiler reference and said film doesn’t deliver, it’s not passing muster with me. So right off the bat, before the credits even roll, the film starts in a hole. Fortunately, it does its damnedest to make up for the oversight; I liked it a lot.

Mayhem depicts the rise and fall of football’s first primetime sports telecast; specifically, the indelible stamp Howard Cosell placed on the franchise. He was the star when the show was in its prime, and he’s the star of this movie, too. In Mayhem, Cosell, played by John Turturro, is an ambitious, fearless sports journalist who sees the boom in televised sports as his ticket to the big time. Cosell longs to be Walter Cronkite, and Monday Night Football, he surmises, is step one to him reaching that exalted state.

Of course, Cosell instead becomes defined by the show, trapped by all it’s peripheral silliness, and his slow realization that a primetime sports event is the closest he’ll ever come to legitimacy carries the emotional weight of the film. Cosell is obnoxious, yes, but tortured, too; I liked this Cosell, felt for this Cosell. When, late in the film, he’s given the chance to break the news of John Lennon’s death, I admit, there was a small dose of chills forming.

While Cosell is busy grappling with the constraints of his celebrity, the show’s producer, Roone Arledge (played by John Heard), begins to climb the ABC ladder. First, assuming control of ABC Sports, then, eventually, its news department. He achieves everything Cosell never would, causing a riff that widens as the film progresses. They begin as friends; they end embittered and distant. Their final scene together, the movie’s final scene, is note perfect.

So, how’s Turturro as Cosell, the make-or-break element of the film? Obviously, Cosell is a larger-than-life figure. Playing him must be daunting (we have such rich and recent memories, not to mention, hours of archival footage), but 30 minutes into the movie, I was buying Turturro. He doesn’t quite nail Cosell, but that allows him to turn in a performance, in lieu of a caricature. After all, they could have dug Rich Little out from his grave if they wanted someone to nail Cosell. What Turturro does is create two definitive Howard’s: the “on” Howard, the version who visited our living rooms, which is all pomp and circumstance, arrogance and obnoxiousness; and the “private” Howard, when he turns it down a notch it and plays it closer to the vest. Turturro is very good. He looks nothing like him, but I bought it. Completely.

Cosell’s booth mates are given little to do, but, like I said, it’s not really about them. They deftly portray Gifford’s legendary propensity for gaffes, but they also take time to humanize Mr. Kathy Lee in a good scene early when he admits to his friend, Arledge, how difficult it is for him to handle the critical backlash. You feel for the guy in that scene. But otherwise, Gifford is a peripheral character. Meredith is, disappointingly, given less to do. I have no idea where they found the actor who plays him (was Matthew McConaughey busy?), but he doesn’t even come close to capturing Meredith’s charisma. I remember Dandy Don, he was fun, funny; here, he’s boring and one-note. They also speed through the procession of his failed replacements (Fred Williamson, Alex Karras, OJ Simpson), proving once and for all that Nicole wasn’t the first thing OJ butchered. (Pathetic, I went all this way just to deliver that one, seven-year old joke.)

But like I said, Mayhem is more about painting an emotional portrait of Cosell than it is about the show. Cosell’s quiet moments at home, with his wife, Emmy, are touching. I mean, I really fell for him in this, felt his pain, his loneliness, his bitterness. The film’s much deeper, and has more pathos, than I thought it would. I liked it a lot.

But there was also much to admire beyond Cosell’s character/ Turturro’s portrayal of him, so here’s a brief synopsis of a few things I also liked about the film:

  • John Heard as Roone Arledge. Heard’s Arledge plays Cosell, uses him for his own gain, but he’s never an unlikable bastard. Heard finds the happy balance.
  • I loved the opening, in which they never show Cosell’s face, but paint a vivid portrait of the man. There’s the cigar, the toupee, he walks with an air of confidence and swagger; he even stops and stuffs a hot dog down his throat (hot dog — get it?). Good stuff.
  • Midway through the film, there’s a great scene where they show Cosell narrating the halftime highlights. Man, oh man, when I was younger (I was seven in 1978), I always begged my mom to let me stay up long enough to watch Cosell’s halftime highlights; I had forgotten how much I loved those. Good times, good times…
  • True-life dramas are always, inherently, interesting to watch just for the casting choices alone. Here, they score with Cosell, sort of nail Gifford (the actor looks more like Jimmy Johnson), massively shank Meredith, prove they’ve apparently never seen Jim McKay, ever, sort of nail (close enough) Keith Jackson, big-time nail Simpson and have sparse scenes involving Curt Gowdy Al Michaels, Williamson and Karras that are too fleeting to render any judgments.
  • Jay Thomas (aka Eddie LeBec) plays Pete Rozelle. With hair. No big deal — he’s barely in it, but here’s the reason I mention it: Thomas grew up friends with my mother-in-law in Louisiana. And about… three or four years ago, I attended a wedding reception for one of my wife’s cousins. It was held at a house, and for some reason, we congregated near the front, which meant we had front door duty. Anyway, there’s a knock, so I answer it and standing there is Jay Thomas. The guy from Cheers, easily one of my all-time favorite shows, is standing there. You can’t imagine how surreal that was. Or, how short he is (how he wasn’t cast as a Hobbit, I have no idea). Anyway, any film with Thomas gives me the chance to recount my brush with greatness, so it’s always viewed as a positive.

Unfortunately, the film’s not perfect. Here are some areas that disappointed me:

  • Early, Cosell, Meredith and Jackson (who was the lead announcer during the show’s first year) have a dress rehearsal in Dallas that crashes and burns. Miraculously, they’re a cohesive, smooth-flowing unit weeks later for the show’s debut. What happened in the interim? The movie glosses over it completely, settling instead for a quick scene where Cosell offers Meredith a drink and a promise to wear the “black cowboy hat” while on the air. Surely there was more to building Cosell and Meredith’s legendary onscreen chemistry than that, right?
  • As soon as you’ve warmed up to the idea of Turturro as Cosell, the movie asks you to swallow some of the worst football reenactments since Coach. They use actual game footage most of the time, but the first-ever game between Namath’s Jets and the Cleveland Browns is inexplicably so badly recreated, it becomes a monumental distraction (the Browns played on Astroturf in Cleveland?). It looks like footage of Pop Warner football. They also recreate scenes from the infamous Dallas-Washington game in which Cosell calls Redskin wide receiver Alvin Garrett a “monkey.” And for some unfathomable reason, Washington is shown wearing red shirts and red pants – definite no-no in my book. I’m a stickler for uniform authenticity. Oh, and no Oiler footage. Bastards!
  • Early, the film makes good use of appropriate music and nostalgic commercials to help identify the film’s time period, but both are dropped midway through, and the film begins to lose its place in time, failing to keep you updated on what year it’s taking place, which sucks, because the film covers 17 years. Before you know it, it’s 1984.
  • There’s no cussing. Why did HBO not make this film? There’s a sanitized feel to it, like we’re getting a cleaned-up, glossy version of events. This is tailor-made for HBO, and could have used some well-placed f-bombs. (I’ll go to my grave believing Meredith used the f-word more frequently than he did the word “the.”) No offense to TNT, but this movie belongs on HBO.

The bottom line is that Mayhem is better than it has to be to satiate a sucker for sports movies like me. It aims higher, for something more than just standard-issue recreations of on-air moments we’ve all seen a million times. It also, and I suppose this is the greatest compliment of all, makes me want to dig out my old MNF 25th Anniversary tape and watch it. It, by the way, has ample Oiler highlights.

FYI, Monday Night Mayhem re-airs Friday, January 18; at 8pm CST, Saturday, January 19, at 11am; Friday, January 25, at 10:30pm; Saturday, January 26, at 8:30am; Thursday, January 31, 11pm and Sunday, February 3, at 7am. If you happen to work for TNT, Ric Sweeney will gladly accept compensation for his promotional work.