'Mayhem' plays it a little too straight
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

There's a moment early in TNT's "Monday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of Monday Night Football" when Howard Cosell is at home doing a crossword puzzle (he's working on a seven-letter word for "pompous": o-r-o-t-u-n-d), and his wife brings him a drink and some lunch.

Brad Beyer, John Turturro, Kevin Anderson
John Turturro (center) captures the complex Howard Cosell, but Kevin Anderson (right, as Frank Gifford) and Brad Beyer (left, as Don Meredith) don't totally connect.
"You've wasted your efforts, my love," he says. "I am not interested in eating." John Turturro plays Cosell, and he delivers the line the way Howard would have called a fight or interviewed a quarterback: with an exaggerated tone and a dramatic cadence.

It's a great move on Turturro's part; it hints at the way Cosell was always "on" and suggests that even in his most comfortable times and places, he was oddly out of proportion with his surroundings.

More than anything, it was that weird insistence on being dramatic -- on calling "Battle of the Network Stars" like he was Edward R. Murrow ducking bombs on a London rooftop -- that made Cosell compelling to watch. By the sheer force of his will, he could make sports feel more important than they usually were, and there was something almost brave in the way he stayed true to his overblown sense of himself and the moment.

Cosell is at the heart of "Monday Night Mayhem"'s story of the birth and rise of "Monday Night Football," and when Turturro is on screen, the movie is worth watching.

When to see it
"Monday Night Mayhem" airs Monday at 9 p.m. ET on TNT. The cable network will run encores over the next three weeks at the following times:

  • Jan. 14 at 11 p.m.
  • Jan. 18 at 9 p.m.
  • Jan. 19 at noon
  • Jan. 25 at 11:30 p.m.
  • Jan. 26 at 9:30 a.m.
  • Jan. 30 at midnight
  • Feb. 3 at 8 a.m.
  • He doesn't actually look like Cosell, and he doesn't sound exactly like him either, but he's spot-on in his rhythms and gestures and, for a bunch of reasons I can't quite articulate, he feels like Howard. He's got the wounded braggart vibe down, and over the course of the movie, he shows us a guy who, despite all his efforts to be unique, really just wants to fit in. It's a fine piece of acting that makes Cosell seem human at the same time it reminds us of how and why he was larger than life.

    Aside from Turturro and Cosell, though, "Mayhem" doesn't totally connect. Events unfold at a brisk pace, the writing and acting are solid, the soundtrack has a good beat and you can dance to it, but the story itself seems strangely flat.

    The fact "Monday Night Football" exists at all is interesting, and historically significant. Before the first MNF game in the fall of 1970, prime-time television was all sitcoms and variety shows, and ABC sports president Roone Arledge, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Keith Jackson (who would soon be replaced by Frank Gifford) changed the landscape of television, and of sports culture, forever with that first broadcast.

    John Turturro, John Heard
    ABC Sports president Roone Arledge (actor John Heard, right) came up with the idea to cast Cosell as the provocateur in a three-man booth.
    Sports on TV had been safe and boring before the MNF team made them entertaining and irreverent; they used three men in a booth -- one as a provocateur (guess who?) -- where before there had only ever been two; they redefined the sound and look of a broadcast by miking the stands and the field and using nine cameras to cover the action.

    It's hard to remember how big it was now, when you can buy a satellite package to watch your favorite team sleep through chalk talks, if you're so inclined, but back in the day, MNF was the greatest show on Earth. Madison Avenue loved it, townies at the corner bar loved it, husbands and wives and their kids loved it.

    If you lived through any part of the early Monday Night phenomenon, there's a certain warm buzz of the familiar about "Monday Night Mayhem." It's an aid to memory, an excuse to make "High Fidelity"-style Top Five lists of the greatest Monday Night games of all-time (you'd better include Earl Campbell's rookie-year, torn-jersey thrashing of the Dolphins in '78) or the most memorable plays you've ever seen (Dorsett's 99½-yard run against the Vikes? Joe Washington's rain-soaked kick returns? Antonio Freeman's on-the-ground-roll-over catch? LT landing on Theismann's leg? -- you sick bastard.)

    Or, if your relationship with "Monday Night Football" begins with Dan Dierdorf -- or, God forbid, Boomer Esiason -- "Mayhem" can work as a brief history of the names, dates, and episodes of the show's genesis, and a glimpse of another era in fashion, politics and television.

    But that's just it: Too often the movie feels like a straight Joe Friday sort of history, like the whole point of it is to recount the conversations and episodes that brought "Monday Night Football" to life, without much feel for how the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts.

    Kevin Anderson, John Turturro, Brad Beyer
    "Monday Night Mayhem" works as a media documentary, but falls short as a movie.
    It's shot in a mock-documentary style that hints at inside dope, but there aren't many revelations, and scenes aren't held together with much beyond the fact they're plausible and maybe even accurate. Except for moments when I was tapping into my own memories or keying on Turturro's turn as Cosell, "Monday Night Mayhem" was something I watched instead of something I got into.

    The drama in the movie is probably reserved for people who make television and movies, people who'd see layers of anxiety and catastrophe in deal-making lunch scenes, late-night phone calls, and production-booth hijinks. I usually like that kind of insider stuff, but it was played so straight here that the weight and nuance of a lot of it was lost on me.

    I hate making the kind of argument I'm about to make -- the kind of argument that hinges on how jaded and sophisticated the world is today -- but I swear, "Monday Night Mayhem" seemed quaint to me; it's high stakes and bold gestures, its secrets and insights were charming, but they weren't gripping.

    They worked as an evocative sort of set-piece, a chance to feel nostalgic about a time when we were so media innocent that Howard Cosell's bombast, three men in a booth, and the chance to eat dinner while you watched seemed like a big deal.

    They just didn't work as a movie.

    Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. The former managing editor of Sportsjones, Neel holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa.



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