It was quite an adjustment for me when I moved to Denver almost 20 years ago. First, it takes time for your lungs to get used to living a mile above sea level. I’m talkin’ like several years. But the other big challenge for me was getting used to living in place where football so dominates the minds of its inhabitants. This city lives and dies by what the Broncos do each week and I just can’t relate to that. I’m a baseball fan and have never had much love for football. So, suffice it to say, football movies are a challenge for me. Still, I will tackle football films from time to time (though baseball films are far superior…duh). Since the start of baseball season is still a few weeks away, today we delve into the world of football with 1968’s “Paper Lion.”
The film is based on actual events. Writer George Plimpton (Alan Alda) is living in New York City and enjoying his life running a magazine. But Plimpton still has an obligation to Sports Illustrated to write several articles. In the past, Plimpton has done some articles based on his experiences being injected into the world or professional sports. He once was allowed to pitch to the Major League Baseball all-star teams and even got into the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson for three rounds. One day, Plimpton is playing touch football in Central Park with some friends. Among them are his assistant, and romantic interest, Kate (Lauren Hutton), and Sports Illustrated editor Oscar (David Doyle). While playing, Oscar hits on the idea for George to attend the training camp of an NFL team, trying to make the team as a quarterback. This idea strikes a chord with George and he sets out to find a team willing to let him come to camp.
That proves to be harder than he thought. He even meets with Vince Lombardi (playing himself), but he is unwilling. Eventually, Kate gets George a meeting with the Detroit Lions who eventually agree to let George attend camp. Of course, he has to sign all sorts of injury waivers before he is allowed in. In return, the coaches must keep it a secret that George is a writer. Now, the head coach (Joe Schmidt) and the majority of the players are played by actual NFL players…including Webster’s future dad Alex Karras, still an active player at the time, in his first acting role.
George’s secret doesn’t last long when coach Schmidt tells Karras to help look out for this writer. Karras ends up spreading the word and the hazing begins…even worse than the hazing that the veteran players were already giving the rookies. It doesn’t help that George is struggling through camp. Still, a few players start to give him some pointers and things start to look up a bit. He especially shows some promise when Kate comes for a visit.
George ends up being allowed to run some plays in the team’s first scrimmage game, and manages a successful series that results in a touchdown. However, he soon learns that the defense laid down and allowed him to succeed. Still determined to prove himself, though, George convinces Coach Schmidt to give him a chance in the team’s first pre-season game, if they nail down a secure lead.
I may not be a football fan, but even I can recognize the big changes in the world of football since this film was made. For example, these players are fined when they exceed 300 pounds! When they go out to the bar after practice, they put on their fancy blazers with the team logo on it. Tattoos and bling bling are not the style of the day…but crew cuts rule!
Even with my dislike of football, the story is pretty intriguing. Alan Alda does a solid job, and I usually don’t care that much for Alda. Lauren Hutton is also good, though she’s not in the film very much. As for the actual NFL players that fill out much of the cast…well, it’s hit and miss. Some are adequate, others struggle. The big exception, of course, is Karras. He shows here why he ended up with a very successful acting career after leaving the gridiron. It’s his first role, even coming before he played Mongo in “Blazing Saddles,” and he shows a lot of promise. He is easily the most interesting character in the film.
The film does have a few problems, though. The training camp stuff is interesting, but it culminates into the big pre-season game, which fills almost the entire last half-hour of the film, and completely fizzles. Part of the problem, is that the game is filmed in a style that is completely lacking in any sort of an eye for narrative. Visually, this sequence shows little in the way of creativity. I felt like I was watching football on television, and you already know that doesn’t interest me. It just doesn’t bode well when the last 30 minutes of the film features absolutely no drama.
So…though my appreciation of football is small, I do appreciate this film to some degree. The majority of the film works very well, but when it fumbles (ha, I used a football term) it does so in epic fashion. By the way, baseball season starts in 20 days!