Leatherheads (2008)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V- 3; L- 2; S/N-1. Running time: c. 2 hours

Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Proverbs 12:19

The Duluth Bulldogs Team.

2008 Universal Pictures

Although George Clooney’s romantic comedy (and we can better say “Clooney’s” because he directs as well as stars) is great fun to watch, it does present viewers with a bit of a moral problem—at least once the laughter fades away with the screen credits. Has this movie led us to approve, even applaud, deception and chicanery because it is employed by a likable screen character? Or, should we forget such scruples and regard the deception of the George Clooney’s character as similar to that of Brer Rabbit in the old Southern fables in which the weak must use deception against the strong in order to survive?

The film has a delightful cold opening, and then marvelously evokes its period, that of the mid-Twenties. We see the caption “College Football 1925” over a scene of a large, packed stadium, the audience cheering as the football warriors run onto the field. Switch to a cow contentedly grazing in a pasture: suddenly a bunch of guys run by, momentarily blocking our view of the cow, which looks up as if wondering what all the commotion is about. Caption reads “Pro-Football 1925.” The attention of the sports world is on the college game, whereas the NFL consists of small teams struggling to stay afloat. George Clooney’s Dodge Connolly captains one such team, the Duluth Bulldogs, who disband on their way to play another team when they learn that their opponents have just declared bankruptcy.

Dodge, however, is resourceful. He manages to sell both sports agent/lawyer CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) and college football hero Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski) on a scheme to revitalize the Bulldogs by having Carter take a year out of college and signing him to play on the Bulldogs for the unheard of price of $5000 a game. Soon all his teammates are being rounded up to play again.

The public reaction is just what Dodge had hoped for, large crowds replacing the hand full of spectators who once turned out for a game in a pasture—only now in real stadiums. Carter proves to be a great draw because he has been lionized by the press for his exploits, on the battlefield as well as on the ball field at Princeton. He was a decorated World War One hero for having captured a battalion of Germans. As the fans swarm around Carter after each game, Dodge has to swallow his pride and accept his new role of playing in Carter’s shadow. It is not long before Carter is substituting his college plays for those that Dodge has been using.

Accompanying the team on its travels is cub reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger). A brash, fast-talking woman trying to succeed in a man’s world, she has been sent by her Chicago Tribune editor on a mission, and it is not just to report on the exploits of Carter and his team. A former Army comrade of Carter’s has come forward claiming that the vague rumor about Carter’s war exploits are not true. Lexie is ordered to get close to the ex-soldier and uncover the truth. Of course, both Carter and Dodge become romantically interested in her. She resists such involvement at first, but then begins to give in to her feelings—until her duty as a journalist collides with them.

This fascinating story is fictional, and yet based on facts that sports writer Duncan Brantley discovered while working for Sports Illustrated when he began to dig into the history of the NFL. There was in the 1920s a star college football player named John McNally who played for the Duluth Eskimos and assumed the alias “Johnny Blood” in order not to lose his eligibility to play at college. In those days the teams were so starved that the coach did have the players shower with their mud splattered clothes on and then remove them for their body shower, and they did hang out of the train windows their clothes to dry in the breeze, as we see in the film. From all this research Brantley has teamed up with friend and fellow sportswriter Rick Reilly to bring us a film that is as entertaining as any real NFL game today (well, almost).

The film owes much to the old screwball comedies of the Thirties and early Forties, especially with its sub theme of the fast-talking woman struggling to make it in a man’s world. Renee Zellweger does a fairly good job in a role once filled by Jean Arthur or Rosalind Russell. Leatherheads should do well at the theaters—and yet, I am bothered by its easy acceptance of deception, or at least, believe that it is something we should think about and discuss.

For Reflection/Discussion

The following might contain spoilers.

1) How effective is the cold opening showing the contrast between college and professional football in 1925? Hard to conceive now, isn’t it? How does this show the importance of publicity and the power of money? In what ways has college football become like professional?

2) What kind of a person does Dodge Connolly seem to be? What do you think of his trickery? In the confrontation with Carter and CC in the Commissioner’s office? In the last game?

3) What do you think of Carter Rutherford? What signs do you see that he has an uneasy conscience? How did what happened to him show a nation’s desire or need for heroes during war time? Who is the other, real life war hero mentioned several times in the film? How did our Army in the Iraq War manufacture a hero that turned out to be false?

4) What do you believe about the questions raised in the first paragraph of the review? Do you think that the film is like Ferris Buhler’s Day Off, teaching that deception is smart and okay? Ferris gets away manipulating friends and deceiving dumb adults—with no consequences? Does Dodge, after the last game?

5) Could Dodge be seen as being more like Brer Rabbit than Ferris? That is, as the underdog using his wits to beat his opponent? Which of the two teams at the end was the underdogs? Also, how was Dodge’s use of deception in the NFL Commissioner’s office an unselfish act?

6) How do we see the quotation from Proverbs playing out in the lives of: Dodge; Lexie; Dodge?