Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Unevenly Cooked: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
Watching Mike Tollin’s contribution to ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series is like being on the receiving end of a college term paper that has 2-inch margins and type large enough for grandma to read it without her glasses. Tollin is a capable storyteller and there are good ideas to be found in his documentary, but the highlights of his effort are let down by the overall sloppiness of the presentation. Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? feels rushed, overly casual and frustratingly scattered. Surprising for something that’s partially autobiographical, it’s a film with too many voices that thus lacks a unifying one. It’s a first draft in need of polishing. It is without question the least impressive of the three “30 for 30” docs released so far, and yet it’s absolutely worth watching because of its terrific subject matter. Small Potatoes lacks the stuff of memorable cinema or journalism, but it’s fascinating all the same because it unearths an important story that the sports world has managed to forget.
The United States Football League enjoyed a three-year run from 1983-1985, during which it evolved from an amateurish sideshow act to an emerging threat to the National Football League, and yet no one talks about it, ever. The USFL drafted three straight Heisman Trophy winners away from the NFL, and yet no one talks about it, ever. The league was the professional starting point for four eventual Hall of Famers – Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young and Gary Zimmerman – and yet no one talks about it, ever. It had coaches like Lee Corso, Jim Mora and Steve Spurrier, and yet no one talks about it, ever. It flew, temporarily, on wings made of wax that were crafted in part by one of the USFL team owners, Donald Trump, who was so low-profile at the time that ESPN’s Bob Ley called him “low key,” and yet no one talks about it, ever. Small Potatoes remedies these omissions. Its 51 minutes on the USFL are likely to be the first 51 minutes most sports fans have dedicated to the defunct league in 15 years or more. In that respect, Small Potatoes is something to cherish. Otherwise there’s little to praise.
Ironically, Small Potatoes’ undoing might be the filmmaker’s familiarity with the material. You see, during the USFL’s brief run Tollin headed up the production studio that had exclusive rights to USFL footage, repackaging highlights each week for ABC. Consequently his documentary is something of a homecoming, and it often feels that way, though rarely for the better. For example, Tollin narrates portions of the film with the goofy air of someone who is slightly embarrassed by his yearbook photos but is determined to show them to us anyway. For background on the USFL, Tollin borrows generously from a Howard Cosell report that he is too fortunate to remember, as it emits the feeling that the USFL is a minor treasure not worth a fresh coat of paint. And then there’s Tollin’s relationship with Trump, without which Trump probably wouldn’t have agreed to an interview, and yet this too proves to be a curse disguised as a blessing, prompting Tollin to bookend his film with an interview of his high-profile subject that appears to be no longer than 10 minutes and reveals nothing we didn’t already know (Trump is full of himself). Perhaps with the benefit of distance another filmmaker would have brought a virginal enthusiasm to the USFL that Tollin seems to have outgrown. Small Potatoes is personal, yes, but it doesn’t feel intimate. Not when Tollin is doing the talking, at least.
Then again, what’s striking about the film is the reverence that former stars like Kelly and Young prove to maintain for the league. These are men who went on to distinguished NFL careers, and yet they don’t talk about the USFL like it’s a back-alley embarrassment, nor do they laugh it off, as Tollin does, like some screwball experiment. Quite the contrary. The USFL was serious business, even while it positioned itself as an offbeat alternative to the “No Fun League.” Kelly and Young have reason to be proud of their past. The USFL was never held in the same regard as the NFL, sure, but back then the NFL wasn’t held in the same regard as Major League Baseball, which is why the NFL had reason to worry when the USFL started shelling out then-record salaries for the likes of Herschel Walker and Young. Alas, the USFL – perhaps manipulated by a self-serving Trump – became overconfident, expanding too quickly, moving games from the spring to the fall to directly compete with the NFL and then taking on the NFL in a monopoly lawsuit in which both sides came away losers.
It’s intriguing to imagine what might have happened if the USFL had played it safe and given their league time to mature. (Can you picture Mel Kiper breaking down college talent for two professional football drafts?) On the other hand, it was the USFL’s willingness to operate on the edge that gave it a fighting chance in the first place. One of the most entertaining portions of Small Potatoes is a montage of elaborate touchdown celebrations, each of them far more flamboyant than the NFL would allow today and yet somehow less obnoxiously self-congratulatory than the tiresome shimmy-shake NFL players bring out after every tackle or first down. The USFL thrived on its individuality, and somewhere along the way Tollin appears to have swallowed some of the Kool-Aid: Though he’s correct in suggesting that the USFL influenced the NFL with its implementation of instant replay as an officiating tool, Tollin goes too far when he credits the league for prompting the NFL’s adoption of the 2-point conversion, given that the post-touchdown play was used in college football dating back to the late 1950s and in the American Football League prior to its merger with the NFL. Details, details.
That twisting of history isn’t the only time Tollin gets a bit careless with his filmmaking. For example, there’s an outdoor interview with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, the guy who dreamed up the concept for the “30 for 30” series, in which Simmons is so poorly lit that it seems as if the interview was done on a whim using a flip camera that Tollin had in his back pocket when he went to the company picnic. And, of course, there’s the Trump interview, which gets more attention than it warrants. Although Tollin succeeds in tracing the fall of the league back to Trump, the appeal of his film turns out to have more to do with resurrecting the USFL in our memories than sleuthing its demise. “Who killed the USFL?” is a question that’s worth asking, but for now a better question might be this: How did we manage to forget the dead so completely?
Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.