North Dallas Forty – 4.25 stars
What Jim Bouton did to/for baseball, Peter Gent did to/for the NFL, and the NFL responded. After this dark depiction of the seamy side of professional football was released in 1979, more than one of the players who participated in its production found their careers at an end. With its frank depiction of drug use, brutality, misogyny, racism and general lunacy, the crackdown is unsurprising. Nick Nolte is a sure-handed rebel WR, but he can’t get off the bench because he bucks coach G.D. Spradlin’s computer-efficient focus on “team” (bedding the fiancee’ of co-owner Dabney Coleman doesn’t help his cause either). Nolte is semi-protected by good ole’ boy QB Mac Davis, who enjoys all the excesses of the game but manages to stay on the right side of management, imploring Nolte to “play the game.” For NFL historians, Nolte is Gent, Spradlin Tom Landry and Davis Don Meredith. There are some moving scenes here, the best of which is former NFL lineman John Matuszak flipping out after a game.
Nolte’s plea to Spradlin as he is run off the team is also affecting. Amidst all the bullshit, you can see these two characters who, under it all, love the game, connect. This is an underrated film, but it is not without its faults. Director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Weekend at Bernie’s) has some problems with tone, such that really dark material is often leavened with weirdly light, comic scenes. Nolte engages in a love interest with Dayle Haddon that is very thin and rushed, which I attribute to the denuding of Gent’s book. The movie ends with Nolte quitting the team; the book ended with Nolte driving into the country to start anew with his love and finding her dead, murdered for living with a black man. Kotcheff had lanced the NFL’s boil enough; there is no way that coda would fly.
Still, Kotcheff is a man who knows his limitations and the picture wisely keeps on-field action to a minimum (what he does show seems realistic and terrifying) and instead, focuses on the schizophrenic world of the professional athlete off-the-field. It also eschews all that jock-sniffing hokum ladled out by Oliver Stone in Any Given Sunday.
Here is a highly recommended article on the movie from Deadspin.