It's tempting to greet the arrival of Showtime's "A Game of Honor" documentary about the rivalry between Army and Navy with a groan. When it premieres on Wednesday night, football fans will only be 11 days removed from the 2011 game, which was part of a three-and-a-half hour CBS telecast featuring plenty of well-intentioned (if eventually numbing) platitudes about what Fine Young Men were suiting up for the academies.
But, to misquote Kipling and as this documentary proves, they know nothing of the Army and Navy who only Army and Navy know. The beauty of "A Game of Honor," co-produced by Pete Radovich, Jr. and Steve Karasik, is not in the recounting of Army and Navy's respective 2011 football seasons (Army finished 3-9, Navy 5-7). It's in the showing of the off-field details and moments that mark the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy as different from any other undergraduate institution anywhere.
The documentary's storytelling structure is well-executed. It opens with the arrival of new students, following Chicago's Terry Baggett (Army) and suburban Philadelphia's Maika Polamalu (a Navy plebe who is the first cousin of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu). Our first jarring moment comes when the new Army cadets arrive at Registration Day (R-Day) with their families in West Point's Eisenhower Hall. They are greeted by, among others, the Academy's superintendent before another official formally welcomes them and reminds the new class of their worthiness to be admitted to West Point.
Then the students and families are told, "You have 90 seconds to say your good-byes," and everything changes. Old familiarity is left behind in favor of drilling, maneuvers and Cadet Basic Training -- "Beast Barracks"-- which concludes with a 16-mile march in full battle gear. Baggett uses the proper Cadet colloquial term in calling the experience "the suck."
As the film progresses, the focus shifts to the upperclassmen, who are moving to the next stage of their military career. The film does well to give them their due. Contrary to expectation, the end does not come with Navy's 27-21 win over their longtime rivals at FedEx Field, but with the coda of seniors from both academies receiving their service assignments. The scenes of jubilation when the Cadets and Midshipmen get what they put in for are inter-cut with shots of anxious, sometimes tearful parents who realize that at least five years of active duty lie ahead.
There are other, smaller moments that are even more affecting. Polamalu, moments after being sworn in at the Naval Academy's Induction Day (I-Day), tells his father "I hate this place" after he has been told to remove part of a tattoo that honors his Samoan heritage. Former Army captain Tyson Quink addresses the team from a wheelchair after losing parts of both his legs in Afghanistan, while current captain Steven Erzinger leads military exercises that include patrolling a mock Afghan village set in the New York woods and populated by actors. Army's Malcolm Brown (the son of a New York City firefighter) and Navy's John Dowd (a Staten Island native) discuss how the events of September 11, 2001 shaped their decision to join the military.
Against this awesome backdrop, the action on the field is underwhelming. Apart from the obvious focus on the Army-Navy game itself and long segments on each team's match-up with the Air Force Academy, the Saturday afternoon sequences feel rushed. On camera, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo (who was initially opposed to allowing Showtime full access to his team) is far more charismatic than his Army counterpart (and good friend) Rich Ellerson, though both men's locker room speeches will seem downright benign to anyone who has any familiarity with HBO's "24/7" series. Despite this, director Radovich has one of his best moments in the immediate aftermath of Navy's overtime loss to Air Force, when we see only devastated faces and hear nothing but the weeping of young men.
Longtime followers of the rivalry will be quick to compare this film to John Feinstein's masterful A Civil War, published in 1997. Feinstein himself inadvertently invited those comparisons when he stepped away from the Navy radio booth this past summer, citing his inability to bear watching the project progress without his input. However, such an exercise would do both Feinstein and Radovich a disservice. Not only have their respective works been released nearly 15 years apart, but too much has happened, both within and without the academies.
We will have to accept them as two very different classics; one a portrait of The Way It Was, and the other a look at The Way It Is.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
"A Game of Honor" premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.