TV Review: ‘Al Davis Vs. The NFL’ An ESPN 30 For 30 Documentary

Review by James Lindorf

Just win baby, is the enduring motto of Al Davis, coach, general manager, and owner of the new Las Vegas Raiders. Davis was known for his love of speed on offense and crushing hits and intimidation on defense. He was also known for his contentious relationship with Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the NFL. Davis is the subject for the latest ESPN and NFL Films’ 30 for 30 documentary. From his early days at Syracuse University to joining the AFL and the NFL/AFL merger to his three Superbowl wins and numerous lawsuits, American football would not be what it is today without Davis. You can see the full story in “Al Davis Vs. The NFL”, which is currently streaming on ESPN+.

Behind the camera for this 78-minute event is veteran director Ken Rodgers. Rogers previously directed some of the best NFL themed 30 for 30 films, including Deion’s Double Play (2019), The Two Bills (2018), The Four Falls of Buffalo (2015), and Elway to Marino (2013). The story is mostly told through archival news, game, and interview footage from the 60’s to Rozelle’s retirement from the league in November of 1989. When the archives failed them or lacked the personality Rodgers and the rest of the crew believed the film needed, they turned away from the past to the latest technology. Using stand ins and voice actors, the production teams created Deepfakes that allowed Pete and Al to tell the story in “their ” own words.

When it comes to making a deepfake, there are three things you are trying to nail. First is the look, and while the team got the fundamental look correct, it was just a bit off. It is how I would imagine a live-action Polar Express would look. It is almost there, but they look a little plastic and lifeless. The second item you want to perfect is the voice. You would be laughed out of the industry if you tried to deepfake Marcus Allen, and he sounded like Steve Urkel. Like the look, the team almost got there with the sound of Pete and Al, but they are just a bit off. It isn’t too noticeable until they jump directly from one of them in archival footage to the computer version. At this point, the differences are easily distinguished. The third and final element is locking down the personality, the swagger, of your subject. In this instance, the team hit a home run. The writing for them is excellent. It is so natural if they told me they said most of these things in print interviews, I would believe it. One for three is a good line in baseball, but when it comes to deepfakes, it isn’t good enough to fool your audience. Maybe they couldn’t trick someone into believing the real Al Davis or Pete Rozelle said these things, but it is enough to entertain, which was Rodgers’ goal.

The stories may be familiar to long time football fans. The central fight was over the Raiders’ move to Los Angeles and the ensuing antitrust suit against the NFL. The ground may be well worn, but Rodgers excitingly presents the events by focusing less on the game, and more on the former colleagues turned bitter sparring partners. “Al Davis VS. The NFL” is as entertaining as their relationship is petty, making it an excellent addition to the 30 for 30 catalog.

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