' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: North Dallas Forty (1979)

Friday, February 12, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: North Dallas Forty (1979)

When it’s not ethically repugnant, football is a funny game. We, the fans, tend to distill it down to a single 60-minute game on Saturday or Sunday, a winner and a loser, then tune in again next week. To the players, however, the game is the end point of a weeklong process of preparation, mental and physical, mostly the latter, especially at the professional level, where everyone is bigger and faster and stronger, meaning the toll those 60 minutes take is greater. There is a big game in “North Dallas Forty” (1979), based on the novel of former NFL player Peter Gent, though director Ted Kotcheff’s movie is less interested in that game’s outcome than the arduous process it takes for the players to get there in the first place, a football movie that, until the end, eschews platitudes or any predictable sports movie beats to evince a character study, a week in the life of a football player. 

“North Dallas Forty” begins by bringing the old chestnut about football players not wanting to get out of bed in the morning to life as North Dallas Wide Receiver Phil Elliot (Nick Nolte) is only able to pull himself out from the under the covers with the help of pills. When he lumbers down the hall, you can practically hear the creak in his bones. (Later, you literally hear the creak in his bones.) Nolte’s inherent weariness, embodied in that familiar rasp, makes him the perfect actor for this part and he plays it entirely in the key of Indiana Jones remarking that it’s not the year, it’s the mileage. The way Nolte stands, always at some angle, belies someone trying to find every advantage with a body that is already breaking down. Can a human approximate a used car? If so, Nolte comes the closest anyone ever has. And the myriad scenes of sitting in tubs, getting taped, guzzling beer in the locker room as unprescribed therapy, etc., all feel less like a conventional plot gradually building toward something than like scattered details of a beaten down person existing in a perpetual fog. 

That is not to suggest Phil has lost the desire to play. Indeed, he still retains a sense of mindless enthusiasm, a penchant for pranks and trash talk that innately suggests why he keeps going. Even so, Phil is in the twilight of his career and on the wrong side of his Coach, or more accurately, his Coach’s (G.D. Spradlin) data, suggesting that even in the prehistoric NFL decisionmakers were consulting computers over their gut. Thankfully “North Dallas Forty” does not delve too deeply into the specifics of this data, until a conclusion that turns oddly preachy, merely using it as a counterpoint to Phil’s plight, letting Nolte’s bullishness illustrate the idea of the NFL as a players game rather than one belonging to the coaches or the numbers crunchers. Of course, Phil’s commitment to the game is tested by a woman, Charlotte (Dayle Haddon). He meets her at a wild party in a scene that briefly suggests her character might be interesting, the camera glimpsing her in the background and circling the room before returning to her, as if it’s giving her space to enter the movie on her own sweet time. Alas, she never graduates to a rounded person, just a symbol of possible post-football existence.

The obliquely referenced championship game hardly feels representative of the sort of stakes we are conditioned to expect for such a climactic contest: no attendant hype, no outside noise, no crowd shots. (There is an earlier scene in which Charles Durning as an assistant coach reads the team a wretched inspirational poem that works retroactively as a comical counterpoint to Al Pacino’s Football Is A Game Of Inches speech in “Any Given Sunday.”) This, however, has the winning effect of making the game all about the players, their feuds and squabbles and shots at personal glory, the broad canvas of a big game revealing how, really, it has nothing to do with you or me or any of us, just them, one more schoolyard brawl that happens to take place at the highest level. The capping scene, however, in which Phil is called before team management and suspended under questionable circumstances, puts too many obvious points in Phil’s mouth, explicating the theme of “North Dallas Forty” rather than letting it bubble to the surface itself. It’s unfortunate, especially when his simply being in the office is perfectly and intrinsically contrasted against the gridiron, a reminder that even if you leave it all on the field, the chairman of the board is always waiting to pull the rug out from under you.

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