Al Davis was a larger-than-life figure. As the owner and general manager of the Raiders, he was in many was the face of the organization. He was passionate about building the best franchise he could and did what he thought was best, no matter which boats it rocked. That led to him having an often-contentious relationship with the NFL, particularly commissioner Pete Rozelle.
In the new 30 For 30 documentary, Al Davis vs. The NFL, filmmaker Ken Rodgers explores that fraught relationship and how it defined the league and the Raiders from the 1970s to today. The film debuted on ESPN on Thursday night and is now available to stream anytime on ESPN+. While many are used to this powerful sports documentary film series by now, Al Davis vs. The NFL features a new wrinkle.
Davis and Rozelle have since died. Davis died October 8, 2011 at the age of 82, while Rozelle died December 6, 1996. Yet both appear in this film. Part of that is from stock footage and interviews, as is typical in these 30 For 30 productions. But for this film, Rodgers chose to use CGI re-creations of both men for contemporary interviews as part of the storytelling device. Think how Princess Leia was inserted into Rogue One.
The storytelling device helped frame a perspective for both men and their positions, but it also felt like an odd choice for this type of documentary. The graphics didn’t look right and the device often took me out of the story that was being told.
Rodgers has been a great part of the 30 For 30 series. He directed two of my favorites, Elway to Marino (2013) and Four Falls of Buffalo (2015). I was excited to see this film, and I think it’s a fascinating and important story about the history of football. But in part because of the production technique, this documentary didn’t work as well as his past entries.
As a lifelong Broncos fan, I never cared for Davis or the franchise he built. But I respected him as a fierce advocate of his team and a fierce competition. His catch phrase, “Just Win Baby,” exemplified his approach. He wanted to win, and he wasn’t shy about fighting for what he thought was right, which led to his many lawsuits that changed the face of the NFL in the 1980s and 1990s. While not perfect, this film brought that to life and celebrated a man who made an indelible impact on the NFL.
I enjoyed Al Davis vs. The NFL even if it wasn’t perfect. For those that love the NFL and its history, films like this are a rich exploration of the people and moments that made the game what it is today. It’s worth checking out, even if you must endure some odd CGI re-creations.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a proud member of the Drive-In Podcast Network.