War as seen through the slo-mo lens of NFL Films

April 08, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

THERE IS ALREADY the predictable grousing about a Pentagon-approved video that is going to be made about the Gulf war.

Those who are complaining don't like the idea that the project is being done by NFL Films, the company that produces the enormously popular highlight films and other TV specials for the National Football League.

The critics say that having the NFL-owned company make the film sends a dangerous message that war is just a game -- our team, the good guys, against their team, the bad guys.

Some also fear that it will glamorize and even popularize war, trivialize the issues that led to the fighting and be nothing but a piece of blatant government propaganda.

It could do those things. On the other hand, if the Pentagon is going to let somebody make a high-class war film, what better choice could there be than NFL Films?

As any sports fan knows, nobody is better at turning violence into art. For years they have been producing dramatic, suspenseful and emotional accounts of games, seasons and individual exploits.

Their films are actually superior to the games. Sitting in the stands at a game, you don't see the quarterback languidly drop back in slow motion, or close-ups of the ball leaving his hand and spiraling against a background of sky and clouds, or a receiver making a ballet-like move to snatch the pigskin only inches from the strands of grass, as the background music thunders like Beethoven and the crowd howls and weeps with joy. At a game, you not only don't get background music, but if a fat drunk jumps up and blocks the view, you could miss seeing the entire play.

They give you the thunderous sound of the linemen crashing and grunting, the quarterback barking his commands, the coaches shouting and imploring and the deep-voiced announcer intoning: "And on this final gray day, it came down to two long yards and two short seconds, the agonizing time and distance to glory or humiliation. . . ."

No, I disagree with the critics. As a longtime admirer of the NFL Films productions, I think it is an excellent choice. Especially since war and football have so much in common.

Many football coaches consider themselves military scholars and use military jargon: the blitz, the long bomb, etc. And many generals, even presidents, talk in football jargon. As President Bush said, this war was his "Super Bowl." In football, the coaches say careful preparation, planning, discipline and execution are everything. That's what generals say too. In football, the coaches say it's essential to establish the air game and the ground game. That's exactly what the generals said we did in the desert. And most coaches loathe the press. So do the generals. They have so many qualities in common.

Sure, the critics are right. It's unlikely that NFL Films will give us the truly grim reality of the war. We're not going to see severed limbs flying, the charred bodies of innocent children and women or a soldier rolling on the ground and screaming because his abdomen has been torn open. But who wants to see stuff like that? After all, when we see NFL Films highlights, they don't show us the doctor's scalpel slicing into a player's twisted leg and closeups of the mangled tendons or gloppy cartilage. If they did, the ratings would go "pfffft."

Nor will we be told what decisions led us into the war. But cameras aren't permitted in the coaches' offices when they draw up their game plans, either. So if football coaches won't reveal their secrets, who are we to expect the commander in chief to spill the beans?

But we will get dramatic visual effects that have never been seen before. That's because crews from NFL Films have been in the desert since it all began last August. They have hundreds of thousands of feet of footage, some from military cameras mounted on tanks.

Do you realize what that means, cameras mounted on tanks? We might get to see scenes of terrified Iraqi solders popping out of their holes in the sand with their hands in the air -- in slow motion, with orchestral background.

It's been reported that NFL Films was allowed to hook tiny microphones up to generals, the way they do to coaches along the sidelines, so we'll be able to hear the generals barking stern commands, expressing grave concern and displaying elation at a big hit. (It's a pity that Howard Cosell wasn't brought in on this. What a moment it would have been if he asked General Schwarzkopf: "Tell me, Stormin' Norman, at what precise point in the game did you know in your guts that you had the Butcher of Baghdad on the run?")

And they're still filming. They are going to keep the cameras rolling right up through the super-colossal Fourth of July celebration that President Bush has planned for the entire grateful nation that will turn its lonely eyes to him.

That ought to be something to see. Although I realize that the NFL Films people know their business, I'm still going to make a suggestion for the final scene.

It should be done in slow motion, a full-body shot of President Bush slow-mo ambling along in the parade and slo-mo waving and grinning at the crowds, with a powerful musical background of Carly Simon singing the always-moving: "Nobody Does It Better."

Of course, they might prefer Ethel Merman belting out: "There's No Business Like Show Business."

That'll work too. Either way, it's a wrap.

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