WASHINGTON — I’ll never forget the day journalism and high school football collided in my life like the sweetness of a crackback block (cue “Glory Days“). My beloved Linganore Lancers had just beaten Dundalk High in the first round of the Maryland state playoffs, when Josh Smith of The Frederick News-Post flipped his post-game interview and asked if I’d like to shadow him the next time he covered a game.
You might think linebackers aren’t supposed to dig Edward R. Murrow, much less Welles and Fellini. But in life’s grand documentary, you never know where things will lead.
Film producer Ed Cunningham has been rocking the “sports to journalism to film” narrative for years. A stand-out at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Va., he was the starting center for the 1991 National Championship football team at the University of Washington. He went on to play five years in the NFL, four with Arizona and one with Seattle, before calling college games for ESPN. Now he produces feature films, the latest of which, “Undefeated,” just won the Oscar for Best Documentary.
“It’s been surreal,” said Cunningham, who took the stage victorious at last month’s Academy Awards. “My wife recorded it on DVR, and I’ve gone back and watched it and just realized, ‘OK, that was real.'”
“Undefeated” follows the Manassas Tigers, led by Coach Bill Courtney, who transforms a group of undisciplined individuals into a team of young men. His mission: to win the school’s first-ever playoff game. His motto: “Football doesn’t build character. It reveals it.” The film not only builds up our emotions, it reveals our tear ducts. Few things shine like those Friday night lights. Except, of course, the Oscar spotlight. What did “Raging Bull” say? “That the thing ain’t the ring, it’s the play?”
The crew spent nine months with the team in Memphis, Tenn., filming countless hours of team meetings, after-school practices and in-game action. The film’s co-directors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, served as their own cinematographers, shooting 95 percent of what appears in the film.
“These guys literally shot morning-to-night and sometimes into the night, six and a half days a week,” Cunningham said. “It got to the point where they actually took a day off and didn’t go to practice, and one of the players went up to Coach Bill and said, ‘Where are the guys? Why aren’t they here?’ They had literally become a part of the team.”
The protagonist is clearly Coach Courtney, who rallies the young men out of poverty and into camaraderie, while coming dangerously close to forsaking his own family in the process.
“He’s a colorful guy. He’s very honest. He’s got a great, strong moral compass, yet he’s not a perfect person,” Cunningham says. “So there were all these reasons to follow Coach Bill, and the truth is, he’s as good a man as you’ll ever meet.”
There also are three major story arcs involving the players: (a) O.C. Brown, the hot college recruit who can’t keep his grades up; (b) Montrail “Money” Brown, the self-proclaimed turtle: hard on the outside, soft on the inside; and (c) Chavis Daniels, the hot-tempered juvenile delinquent with one last chance at redemption.
Was the setting of Manassas, Tenn., a bizarre coincidence to the Manassas, Va., of Cunningham’s home state? Was his national title with the Washington Huskies a fateful connection to the Washington D.C. area he grew up in? Or maybe, just maybe, Cunningham has produced the documentary he was born to make. Just like run-and-gun football documentaries, life sometimes forces us to take a step back and let the curious storylines emerge on their own.
“It’s like being at a cocktail party,” said Cunningham, who also produced the video game documentary “King of Kong” (2007). “When you’re making a documentary, the camera just starts going to the most interesting person in the room. So as long as you stay open while you’re in the environment, those things really start to become obvious. If you’re just listening and paying attention and following the story of the people’s lives, the most interesting people almost always bubble to the surface.”
You can say that again, Ed.
“Undefeated” is still screening at the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema in Bethesda, Md. Whether you love football, or simply love inspirational, coming-of-age stories, this film will knock your cleats off.
★ ★ ★ ★
Listen to the full interview above. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking “Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, and check out his blog, The Film Spectrum.