' ' Cinema Romantico: Pitch Meeting: Third Saturday in October

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Pitch Meeting: Third Saturday in October

The University of Tennessee Volunteers defeated the University of Alabama Crimson Tide over the weekend (stay with me - eh, if you want) in a 52-49 game epitomizing why college football will forever be the sport closest to this blog’s heart. It was a crucible of plot twists and pressure under the lights of a 102,000-seat stadium yielding as much electrifying brilliance as eye-covering folly that opened incredible cosmic portals to the sport’s history (we were on the precipice of The Fifth Down sequel for a minute there), demonstrated crucial shades of dimension (to my mind, the best player on the field was, in fact, the losing quarterback) and concluded not simply with a last-second field goal (that went over the crossbar as a kind of pigskin knuckleball demonstrating how even then the college football gods saw fit to throw in one more twist) but with the field overrun by bewildered, jubilant, orange-covered humanity and goalposts uprooted from the end zone and paraded through the streets of Knoxville, living out the sport’s perfect nexus between exultation and insanity. And that insanity, that’s what I’m thinking about. Because college football movies, whether the plethora of them released in the 30s and 40s when the game was king in America alongside baseball, or the more recent ones, tend to channel that insanity through the comedy genre, a la “Horse Feathers” (1932) or “Necessary Roughness” (1991) or some sort of gritty drama, a la “Saturday’s Heroes” (1937) or “The Program” (1993) (there is also the reverential fluff of “Rudy,” but don’t get me started). Rarely, though, if ever, do you see the college football thriller. And that is where Cinema Romantico comes in.

Tennessee’s game with Alabama is a rivalry even if it had been some time since Tennessee had prevailed, bearing its own nickname – The Third Saturday in October, simple-sounding, perhaps, but evocative of how, in their own minds, the date is reserved just for them. But I have always envisioned that moniker as something more, the title of my college football thriller, one I have heard for years and years in the voice of Don LaFontaine as an aerial shot of Neyland Stadium unfolds on the screen. “On the Third Saturday in October, tensions always run high. But this year, they are about to explode.”

An Alabama man, Henry Mize (Michael Shannon), with a personal history tied to the Crimson Tide football team gradually doled out over an hour and forty-five minutes, pilots a boat loaded with a bomb from a dock in Huntsville, Alabama and up the Tennessee River toward Knoxville, lowering his Crimson Tide flag at the border and raising a Volunteer one, a la “Captain Blood.” The plan: he will dock with the famed Vol Navy – an armada of tailgating boats moored on the banks of Neyland Stadium – where in a pre-planned ceremony the football team’s bluetick coonhound mascot Smokey will be brought aboard the boat of the informal Admiral (Luke Wilson) of the ostensible navy and blow them all to kingdom come. 

Henry’s preparations and voyage are crosscut with newbie UT Daily Beacon reporter Kelsey Slocum (Ayo Edebiri) who discovers in would-be puff piece about Smokey that the dog has received a death threat. When the local police laugh the threat off as just some jokester blowing smoke and her editor advises it is fake news (“Really? That’s really your response? You’re being serious right now?”) she skips her latest deadline, class, and huge exam to travel to the Yellowhammer State and open a time-sensitive investigation, taking her into the sordid heart of college football, from Paul Finebaum-ish radio personality John Theodore “J.T.” Pope (Bruce McGill), the self-proclaimed supreme pontiff of SEC Football, who becomes Kelsey’s unlikely co-detective, to an unctuous booster (Michael Rooker) who Knows More Than He Is Saying, to Henry’s ex-wife (Amber Benson), to some entity called the Huntsville Touchdown Club that proves to be less a non-profit for children’s medical needs than the front for a militant football fan organization, and finally, to a shady boat and RV salesman Grady Smith (Walton Goggins) who unlocks the mystery. (“You’re a Volunteer,” I imagine Goggins saying in his resplendent native Alabamian accent. “Why don’t you volunteer to show yourself to the door.”)

Kelsey and Pope then make haste upriver, aided by an idealistic river cop (Emily Procter) who in an emotional conclusion to their longstanding argument over whether Nick Saban is the superior coach to Bear Bryant (she says yes), commandeers the vessel by pushing her superior (Dwight Yoakam) overboard, outfoxing the inside man (Johnny Knoxville) operating a lock and dam, and racing to prevent the Third Saturday in October from being a day that lives in infamy. 

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