Questionable technology decisions risk undercutting a documentary rich with NFL history

By: Steve Pulaski

Ken Rodgers — director of many ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries — employs a bold technological strategy with his latest, Al Davis vs. The NFL. Through the “wonders” of deepfake technology, along with copious makeup, he effectively makes the late Oakland Raiders coach/owner Al Davis and former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle rise from the dead. Scripted monologues and narrative commentary from both are heard throughout the film. It’s initially jarring and takes some getting used to. Ultimately, it makes you yearn for the usual talking heads found in these documentaries. Were John Madden, Tom Flores, and Amy Trask too entrenched in quarantine to offer insight?

Either way, Rodgers evidently wanted a setup akin to the one he got for The Two Bills, which revolved around the sterling coaching careers of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick and showed them both in the same room. Al Davis vs. The NFL details the 10+ year battle between the outspoken Raiders owner and former commissioner. Al had his heart set on moving the team to Los Angeles following the NFL/AFL merger in 1966, something Rozelle wasn’t keen on to say the least.

In the early 1960s, Al was the head coach of the Raiders, inheriting a 1-13 team that would rebound with a 10-4 team and manifest itself into a playoff team for years to come. Al would go on to serve as AFL commissioner before purchasing minority ownership of the Oakland Raiders, eventually becoming the primary owner when the NFL and AFL merged. Early in the documentary, he states that he liked to flip the old football model of “take what they give you” into “take what we want.” Money was never an issue for the well-to-do Davis family; athletic glory was the prime goal.

The Raiders in the 1970s, coached by the legendary Madden, saw themselves get jobbed against the Pittsburgh Steelers in multiple conference championship games, either by a blown call or a field that resembled a hockey rink. The team took on the identity of Davis, who was unflinching, cut-throat, and always had a “go for the jugular” attitude. The ongoing reputation for the Raiders being a classically “dirty team” ostensibly was born when George Atkinson doled out a clothesline hit against Steeler Lynn Swann, which set off a fiery war of words that included the phrase “criminal intent.” The Steelers winning that case, coupled with the losses, also served as the foundation for the Al and Rozelle feud, on which Rodgers’ documentary is predicated.

Al Davis vs. The NFL highlights the NFL’s hand in botching the Raiders’ move to Los Angeles, which resulted in Al publicly berating disagreeable team owners and the league blatantly trying to curb the hearing for the move by planting a purposefully biased juror. Rozelle had his reasons for wanting to keep the team in Oakland, however. The Raiders had sold out 12 consecutive seasons, and the team clearly had a stable brand and roaring fan support. Rozelle evidently feared pressure that this would set a precedent of otherwise functional franchises turning nomadic. One of the film’s best moments comes when we see the Super Bowl trophy being presented to Al and the victorious Raiders (the year they would’ve moved to Los Angeles) by Rozelle. Player commentary asserts that a prank was to be pulled on Rozelle unless Al uttered a specific phrase after being presented with the trophy. I’ll leave you to find out what transpired.

Back to the aforementioned deepfake technology, which is sure to be a social media talking point in the temporary and a footnote about the film going forward. The big problem is not the distracting appearance (which is curbed by the stand-in actors remaining cloaked in self-conscious, dimly lit rooms). It’s the eloquence in the narration from both Al and Rozelle’s statements on any given event. In more ways than one, the presentation feels non-human. These statements are the paraphrased ideas and opinions of these men, neatly written and diplomatically delivered in ways that come across as artificial — because they ultimately are. It’s an ambitious but needless attribute that softens the impact of the documentary. Current Raiders owner and Al’s son Mark Davis coupled with a litany of surviving members of Raiders front offices in conjunction with former coaches would’ve humanized the late renegade far more effectively.

What Al Davis vs. The NFL does effectively is paint a vivid picture of the league’s most outspoken and uncompromising owner, second maybe to the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones. If Rozelle operated like a politician — as most league commissioners ultimately do — then Al was the equivalent of a mobster; not an enforcer but one who instilled fear from his words and closed-door actions. The comprehensiveness of the documentary is commendable, albeit rushed in the final minutes. Archival footage fills in the blanks and spares us the uncanny valley presentation of the resurrected duo, but not before we conclude on a note that’s endearing albeit a touch disquieting. There are certainly better 30 for 30 documentaries out there, but it’s a testament to Rodgers’ craftsmanship that a truly baffling creative decision doesn’t undercut the wealth of history thoughtfully showcased.

NOTE: Al Davis vs. The NFL will be airing on ESPN throughout the month of February 2021, and is available to stream on ESPN+.

Grade: C+