The images from NFL Films' annual Super Bowl highlights packages have become so indelible that a lot of fans only remember the game as NFL Films shows it. That's not just a victorious Joe Namath running off the field, or Lynn Swann making an acrobatic touchdown catch. It's the whole classic NFL Films presentation: low-angle shots, super-slow-motion, glaring sun, galloping soundtracks, and the halting, authoritative voice of John Facenda, who narrated every Super Bowl film up until his 1984 death. At their best, the NFL Films Super Bowl reels are worthy of mention in the same breath as Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia and Bruce Brown's Endless Summer, as well as the top cinéma vérité documentaries of the '60s and '70s. Here now, listed chronologically, are films that—in some cases—qualify as real cinematic art.
Super Bowl I (Green Bay 35, Kansas City 10)
NFL Films' mastermind Ed Sabol and his son and heir, Steven, spend most of the first Super Bowl highlight reel trying to establish the importance of the event, starting with the film's title: "The Spectacle Of A Sport." There's plenty of "coach's corner"-style analysis of pivotal plays, but the focus is more on pageantry and ritual, from marching bands forming the outline of two hand-holding stick figures (symbolizing the merger of two rival leagues, or perhaps the innate homoeroticism of professional football) to the dour scribbling of suit-clad, pasty white sportswriters in the post-game locker room. It's a soup-to-nuts look at a championship game stumbling toward credibility.
Memorable John Facenda narration: "The clarion call of the Kansas City trumpeter went… unanswered."
Super Bowl III (New York 16, Baltimore 7)
This is the first Super Bowl where an off-field story overshadows the on-field action, and NFL Films doesn't bury the lead. The film opens with a peppy song about New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, and a brief history of his infamous victory "guarantee." Then it quickly turns into a study of generations in transition. While brash upstart Namath hogs the spotlight, weary Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas warms up on the sidelines, waiting his turn. The film builds to an impressionistic, jazz-scored montage of Unitas' final drive, which ends with a busted play and a ball tumbling to an empty spot on the field, to the muted strains of a piano-and-flute duet. The almost avant-garde presentation–highlighted by jarring jump cuts in the middle of a slow-motion run–is at odds with the sight of a buzz-cut-sporting Jet chastely muttering, "You dirty Colt. You dirty guy."
Memorable John Facenda narration: "The third quarter was dying… and so were the Colts."
Super Bowl IV (Kansas City 23, Minnesota 7)
This 1970 offering may be the most popular Super Bowl film, thanks to Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram, who wears a microphone during the game and lets viewers hear him bicker with the referees for every spot of the ball. Stram simultaneously urges on his troops ("Keep matriculatin' the ball down the field, boys!") and maintains a running commentary on his game plan. ("We got a reverse comin' from the tight I!") The Stram-ebration hits its peak when the coach calls for "65 Toss Power Trap," and insists, "That might pop wide open, rats." Once again, the film's content almost takes a back seat to its style, from the swinging score–uptempo jazz with a touch of Isaac Hayes–to a machine-gun editing style that looks like the last act of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H.
Memorable John Facenda narration: "Kansas City's running backs moved like lizards… slithering through the cracks and crevices in the Viking line."
Super Bowl V (Baltimore 16, Dallas 13)
This is the most Frederick Wiseman-like of the NFL Films Super Bowl packages, thanks to a lengthy scene-setting opening that shows Miami's Orange Bowl employees and network TV technicians readying for action. Then, after a stunning lens flare and opening credits writ in a font best described as "Chevy Van Bumper Sticker," the film returns to the mundane by spending a few minutes at the Will Call window. The actual game, meanwhile, is defined by crazy turnovers and a lack of action, until the tense final minutes, recreated here with live audio of crunching tackles and the hollow sound of a game-winning kick.
Memorable John Facenda narration: "Once in a great while, the clouds of chance will overshadow… the plans of men."
Super Bowl IX (Pittsburgh 16, Minnesota 6)
The debut of the formidable Pittsburgh Steelers–NFL Films' most reliable leading men throughout the '70s–comes amid a vignette-filled film that begins with bickering fans on Bourbon Street. Then comes a series of memorable images: Joe Green throwing a panicked-looking Chuck Foreman to the turf, L.C. Greenwood's golden shoes kicking the ball into the end zone for a safety, a bearded Terry Bradshaw mounting a scoring drive, and a quick shot of the game action framed through the legs of a sideline-bound player with torn, bloody socks. In a film full of visual coups, the best comes last: a deflated Fran Tarkenton running off the field at the end of the game, with a swarm of Steelers behind him.
Memorable John Facenda narration: "The Steel Curtain formed… an eerie tableau."
Super Bowl X (Pittsburgh 21, Dallas 17)
The film is titled "The Best Ever," because at the time, it was the most competitive and exiting Super Bowl ever played, but as a piece of cinema, the 10th Super Bowl film isn't as strong as the ones where NFL Films used superior artistry to overcome bum material. Still, football fans should appreciate the keen analysis, and the beautiful footage of balletic wide receiver Lynn Swann, as well as entertaining side moments like a "Bicentennial" coin flip that goes awry when it hits a player's foot ("That's all right," snaps the referee), and a close-up of Dallas Cowboy defender Cliff Harris patting Steelers kicker Roy Gerela on the head after a missed field goal.
Memorable John Facenda narration: "A Niagra of gold and black… poured down on Roger Staubach."
Super Bowl XII (Dallas 27, Denver 10)
Proof once again that the worst games can make the best films, this Dallas Cowboy blowout of the Denver Broncos (title: "Doomsday In The Dome") is noteworthy for its focus on the fans, at a time when a team's diehards could actually attend a Super Bowl. Of special note are the Bronco rooters, who seem to be disproportionately female, middle-aged, Farrah-haired, and decked out in tight orange T-shirts. NFL Films pulls one of its common tricks with non-competitive games, jumbling the action non-chronologically so that the few Bronco successes look roughly even to those of the dominating Cowboys. Equally notable is the synth-heavy score, which culminates in an oft-imitated slow-motion replay set to Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells."
Memorable John Facenda narration: "It was fiercely fought… but fatally flawed."
Super Bowl XIV (Pittsburgh 31, Los Angeles 19)
Picking up on the fan-focused Super Bowl XII reel, the 14th Super Bowl film digs into the complicated relationship between the glitzy Los Angeles Rams and their fair-weather supporters. Beginning with a (non-salacious) peek inside the Rams' cheerleaders' dressing room, the film emphasizes surface appeal versus true grit, and indicts Rams fans for screaming "C'mon Rams, let's go, you jerks!" while quarterback Vince Ferragamo and his beat-up teammates play their hearts out against a ridiculously superior Pittsburgh Steelers team. This film has one of the most evocative scores of any NFL Films production–a mix of acid guitar and low, propulsive strings–and it gives added insight into the Rams' psyche by spending time with the team's assistant coaches up in the booth. But the most memorable image is of the darkening skies in the 4th quarter, foreshadowing the mounting tension of a final, failed Rams drive.
Memorable John Facenda narration: "By day, the Rams' sparkling spirit kept the game close… but by night, it faded into the black reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers."
Super Bowl XX (Chicago 46, New England 10)
In spite of the incongruous opening footage of Hare Krishnas, this is the first real Reagan-era Super Bowl film, from the soundtrack (an orchestral maelstrom enlivened with snippets of turntable scratching) to the interlude about the Chicago Bears' "new wave" quarterback Jim McMahon. The 20th Super Bowl film is all about passing out medals after an overwhelming military campaign–what was, in effect, the Grenada of championship games. The film takes time to praise, in turn, McMahon, Mike Singletary, Buddy Ryan, and William "The Refrigerator" Perry. It also throws a bone to the New England Patriots, pointing out that they were successful at stopping Walter Payton. Tellingly, neither Payton nor any of the Pats are interviewed. History belongs to the ass-kickers.
Memorable narration (not from John Facenda, who died the previous year): "These missed opportunities filled the air with storm warnings, and the hurricane-strength Chicago Bears were on the horizon, ready to inflict a natural disaster."
Super Bowl XXIII (San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16)
By the mid-'80s, the NFL Films Super Bowl highlight packages lost a lot of their edge, perhaps because the producers' "up close and personal" techniques had been co-opted by television, or perhaps because the Sabols sold the company to the art-fearing NFL. Whatever the reason, the beauty of the early films gave way to something steelier, such that the quality of the reels now depends almost solely on the quality of the game. A semi-exception is the 23rd Super Bowl film, which is a fine piece of storytelling in its own right. The narration is kept to a minimum, replaced by radio calls and the fiery voice of Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche, who spends the pre-game giving each of his players an individual piece of encouragement, but during the game screams, "Don't be a selfish football player! When we give you the ball, do your job! Don't come off this fuckin' field tellin' us what to do!" In the final minutes, Wyche urges his players to "play like you're world champions," but watches in misery as the San Francisco 49ers–and Joe Montana and Jerry Rice in particular–execute a nervy 92-yard game-winning drive. The last words belong to Wyche, sighing after a 49er TD: "Thirty-four seconds away from it."
Memorable narration: "Quarterback Boomer Esiason was so cold, he had ice on his wing."
Super Bowl XXV (New York 20, Buffalo 19)
Another great game, and an unexpectedly artful film to boot, which does justice to the signature moment of the 25th Super Bowl–Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood missing a game-winning field goal–as well as recording the Desert Shield-derived paranoia that surrounded the event. The actual football coverage is disappointingly straightforward, aside from some heightened tension during the agonizing finale (described by the unnamed narrator as "more poignant than pathetic"). But the pre-Gulf War I framing device elevates the piece, from the interviews with soldiers in Saudi Arabia and shots of the enhanced security at the gate to the poetic (and borderline campy) final shot of a flag-waving little girl in the arms of her daddy, a New York Giants player with the name "Reasons" emblazoned on the back of his jersey.
Memorable narration: "The Bill hassled Hostetler, haunted him, hounded him, eventually sending him hobbling to the bench."
Super Bowl XXXVIII (New England 32, Carolina 29)
It's unfortunate that Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction–unmentioned in this film–overshadowed what may have been the best top-to-bottom Super Bowl ever, and what may end up being the last good Super Bowl film: It doesn't contain much to praise that's couldn't have been seen in the original broadcast, aside from the intimate footage of players trash-talking before the game, and one great close-up of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady signaling a first down in an especially spazzy way. In this Super Bowl, both coaches are wired up, but the only people who can hear what they have to say are the assistants on the other end of their headsets, and unlike the edit-by-feel days of yore, this film is so foursquare that it even includes an ESPN score box. Where have you gone, Hank Stram?
Memorable narration: None. Those days are over.