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Great football movies


On this Super Bowl weekend, we're asking the question, what makes a great football movie? And here to help answer that question are Brittany Luse, the host of fellow NPR show It's Been A Minute. Hey, Brittany.

BRITTANY LUSE, BYLINE: Hey, Scott. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: Good to talk to you. And Stephen Thompson, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Hey, Stephen.


DETROW: I know you're a big Packers fan. I'm sorry about the Kansas City Chiefs kind of supplanting them in many fronts. I hope you're...

THOMPSON: I have no regrets. It was a great season.


DETROW: So look. Sports movies are such a staple of American pop culture. You've got iconic basketball movies like "White Men Can't Jump" and I will add "Space Jam" - boxing films, obviously "Rocky," many other examples, baseball films, "A League Of Their Own" and many others. But, Stephen, let me start with you. What makes a football film special in your opinion?

THOMPSON: I think the best ones are about more than just football. And so, you know, when we talk about a movie like "Brian's Song" from 1971...

LUSE: Oh, my gosh.

THOMPSON: ...One of the, like, old - it is to a certain subset of film viewers what "Old Yeller" is to kids. It is a guaranteed tearjerker.


BILLY DEE WILLIAMS: (As Gale Sayers) I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him too. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.

THOMPSON: It is about the real-life friendship between members of my least favorite football team, the Chicago Bears, Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. And Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And the film is about their friendship and the way their friendship unfolds. And it is more than just about football, even though it is about a real-life football team and real-life football players. It is capturing and trafficking in real human emotions in ways that really work for it. So for me, the football films that work best for me aren't just necessarily, like, we have to win the big game or this plucky underdog, you know, can rise from the ashes or there's nothing in the rulebook that says a mule can't kick a football in an NFL game and win the Super Bowl, a la the 1976 film "Gus." I like football films that are weaving in different storylines.

DETROW: What about you, Brittany?

LUSE: OK. So I have a slightly different perspective because I don't watch football. I don't understand it. So it's not something that, like - it's not part of my daily life.

DETROW: What do you think the appeal of a sports movie is, whether it's football or any other sport? Why do you think these movies work so well even with non-sports fans?

LUSE: I think it's really similar to a good action film. I'm not really that into action films. But when I saw "John Wick" and also when I saw the second - I never saw the first one, admittedly. To me, it's like the elements that make that film work or that make "John Wick" films work are the same ones that make a good football movie work, which is that there is a very clear goal, and everybody knows what we have to do to accomplish it. It is like - there is just a beautiful, simple story that is laid out in front of you. You know that it's about coming together or winning or not winning but learning an emotional lesson. Like, you don't have to follow the gameplay or even understand what a snap is or a yard, down. I don't know what any of that means. I don't know what any of that means. I don't know what any of it means. But it doesn't matter.

THOMPSON: Yeah. There's a scoreboard that shows you exactly where you are in the story.

LUSE: Exactly. I just think there's something that's so, like, it's so easy to root for and easy to get behind and easy to get swept up in the idea of there being this one big common goal that everybody's got to get on board with.


AL PACINO: (As Tony D'Amato) All comes down to today. Either we heal as a team and we're going to crumble.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I think I agree with that completely. I mean, Brittany mentioned action movies. One of the most frustrating things in a lot of action movies is these, like, long, boring expository sequences where all they're really trying to say is, like, they have this MacGuffin and I want it, you know. And so, like, so they wind up building up 45 minutes of boring lore that nobody's going to remember. A sports movie cuts right to the heart of it. This team has X number of points. We need Y number of points. And it just keeps the story on rails in ways that are very relatable. And anybody who's ever participated in any kind of athletic competition - I am not an athlete. I've never really competed in sports at any level outside of coed rec league softball.

LUSE: That counts.

THOMPSON: Which I was very, very bad at. You can still relate to it if you've ever watched a sport on TV. If you've ever played a sport at any level, you understand kind of some of the feeling that goes into what it would be like to win or lose. And I think - and so I think it's an extremely relatable pathway to a lot of emotion.

DETROW: I wonder what either of you make of this. We were thinking about this. And I feel like there kind of hasn't been a good football movie in a while. And the last few football movies I can think of were really more about football fandom than football players, "Silver Linings Playbook," that "80 For Brady" movie.

LUSE: "80 For Brady," yeah.

THOMPSON: "80 For Brady." I've seen it.


DETROW: I mean, do either of you have any thoughts on why that may be?

LUSE: I think - I mean, I'll say this as somebody who's very far outside of football. Something that I've seen really progress over the last 10 years, whether we're talking about racism within the league and the way some people think about the NFL combines, whether we're talking about some of the domestic disputes and instances of intimate partner violence that have been, you know, caught on tape or whatever of players and, you know, their partners or even, you know, like, all of the health risks that come along with playing tackle football, like, such as CTE.

DETROW: Right. We just know way more about CTE than we did before.

LUSE: Exactly. I think that there's - I think that, like, maybe in the '90s and the earlier 2000s, before a lot of those things entered the sort of mainstream consciousness, I think that it was easier to lionize football. And I think that you can feel that lionization all over a lot of the films that we've discussed as this, you know, perfect encapsulation of American pastime. I know baseball's America's pastime, but I also think American football kind of fits in there, too. And I just think now we know too much about the risks associated with playing football or also some of like the not-so-nice underbelly of the celebrity machine and the, like, corporatization of the football league. I just think we know too much. And it's hard to be able to look at the game the same way.

THOMPSON: I would also add that there has been a little bit of a hollowing out in the movie industry of mid-budget...

LUSE: Great point.

THOMPSON: ...Kind of middle - for lack of a better term, middle-class films, films that aren't low budget indies and aren't big budget tentpole IP-driven films.


THOMPSON: And so we've lost a lot of rom-coms. We've lost a lot of underdog sports movies. We've lost a lot of these kind of mid-tier movies that, you know, you can imagine watching on basic cable at 2:00 in the afternoon back before streaming was a thing. I think that contributes to it as much as any larger kind of self-awareness around football. And I think, Scott, you brought up something interesting in the question you asked, which was you mentioned that several of the most recent films have been about football fandom. You mentioned "Silver Linings Playbook." You mentioned "80 For Brady." One other film that I would throw out there that fits into that category - and I have to be careful when I talk about this because the writer-director is a friend of mine. There's a film called "Big Fan" from 2009...

DETROW: Oh, yeah.

THOMPSON: ...That is, I think, as relevant to this Super Bowl as any football film that has ever been made. "Big Fan" is - it stars Patton Oswalt as a superfan of the New York Giants.


SCOTT FERRALL: (As Sports Dogg) Let's go to my boy Paul in Staten Island. He always brings the leverage.

PATTON OSWALT: (As Paul Aufiero) Hey, Sports Dogg. I can't tell you how sick I am of all these bozos hitting a receiver.

MARCIA JEAN KURTZ: (As Paul's Mom) Paul, you mind?

OSWALT: (As Paul Aufiero) Yes, I do. Go to bed, mom.

THOMPSON: And his life is upended when he's beaten up by his favorite player.

LUSE: Whoa.

THOMPSON: And if you want an examination of parasocial relationships with athletes and the way that fandom can be taken to extremes, where it can subsume your identity and then leave you vulnerable to having your life upended, this film really gets at the heart of that. There is not a lot of gridiron action in this film, but it is extremely relevant to a lot of the conversations that we have around these parasocial relationships with athletes.

DETROW: Stephen Thompson is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. And Brittany Luse is the host of NPR's It's Been A Minute. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

LUSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brittany Luse
Brittany Luse is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and cultural critic. She is the host of It's Been a Minute and For Colored Nerds. Previously Luse hosted The Nod and Sampler podcasts, and co-hosted and executive produced The Nod with Brittany and Eric, a daily streaming show. She's written for Vulture and Harper's Bazaar, among others, and edited for the podcasts Planet Money and Not Past It. Luse and her work have been profiled by publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vulture, and Teen Vogue.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)