Documentary Review: 'ESPN 30 for 30: Al Davis vs the NFL'
Technology raises the dead in Al Davis vs the NFL but the real story is Al Davis the human being.
ESPN 30 for 30 has become a haven for documentary filmmakers eager to find unique ways to tell familiar stories. The documentary format can tend to be a very homogenous artform, always very similar and familiar in structure and presentation. Thus a series such as 30 for 30 can feel a little rote after a while. To change that, documentary filmmakers need to get creative and find little ways to set themselves apart from the rest.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Rogers decided that his best hope for making Al Davis vs the NFL, the story of the Oakland/LA Raiders owner's non-stop war against his league and partners, was to raise the dead. Okay, not literally but figuratively. Using cutting edge Deep Fake technology, Rogers and his crew have brought Al Davis and former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle back to virtual life to hash out their lengthy history together from beyond the grave.
That it has taken this long for Al Davis to be the subject of a 30 for 30 Documentary is perhaps the most surprising element of Al Davis vs the NFL, even more so than his return to virtual life. Davis is one of the most vocal and divisive figures in NFL history. While some compared him to Baseball maverick George Steinbrenner, others had less flattering comparisons like Satan or other such demonic forces.
That said, Davis also inspired intense loyalty among the people who played for him and rooted for his teams. Davis’s players adored Davis and his mantra ‘Just Win Baby.’ His maverick style inspired fans to rally around the team for many of the reasons so many others hated Davis and his Raiders. Davis was divisive and controversial to such a degree that the stories about Davis echo through time as loud as ever. It’s a wonder no one made this movie before now.
Al Davis vs the NFL recalls many of the most famous stories about Al Davis and his rivalry with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The rivalry between the two men dates back to well before Davis became the famed owner of the Oakland Raiders. The two men clashed first as the rival commissioners of their respective leagues, Rozelle in the NFL and Davis as the commissioner of the rival upstart AFL.
Davis played a key role in bringing the AFL and NFL together and one of the incredible stories told in Al Davis vs the NFL is how the merger of the two leagues became necessary after a kicker defected from the AFL and NFL and began a free agent war between the two leagues that eventually called for a detente and an alliance before each side fully destroyed the other. These stories come together with historic interviews with Davis and Rozelle but also in the words of virtual Al and virtual Pete.
The Deep Fake technology used to bring life to Davis and Rozelle in Al Davis vs the NFL is both impressive and distracting. Both men look like video game characters in cutscenes from an NFL franchise game. That said, I was somewhat impressed with the way the voice matched up for both men and the pseudo first person delivery of the stories being told is a nice touch, it gives the documentary a very modern feel even as the two men are no longer in the modern world.
The big moments are all there in Al Davis vs the NFL from Davis fighting to move his team to Los Angeles to Davis threatening to leave L.A for Irwindale and the surprising list of other cities that offered to give the Raiders a home. The movie does a terrific job of untangling the stakes of Davis’ lawsuit against the league that eventually allowed the move from Oakland to Los Angeles and the chaotic potential of the league no longer having a role in helping decide where teams can move to.
And then the documentary ends on a note of genuine sentiment and pathos. In the end, the soft side of Al Davis, the genuine compassionate side, is shown and it becomes clear that while Davis might have played to win in most aspects of life and business, he was still a man with a big heart. Pete Rozelle died in 1996 and Davis shared his earnest reaction to Rozelle’s struggle with cancer in an interview with NFL Films that is rediscovered in Al Davis vs the NFL.
Al Davis could never be called a big softy but with all of the stories about Davis as a ruthless, cutthroat, Football Pirate, seeing him be honest, warm and vulnerable toward the man who was his great rival in business humanizes the legend. That’s perhaps even more impressive than the technology used to bring Davis and Rozelle back from the dead. That a filmmaker can make Al Davis, of all legendary sports villains, into a figure of genuine sympathy is pretty incredible.
Al Davis vs the NFL debuts on ESPN on Thursday, February 4th and will be available on the ESPN streaming app after the broadcast.