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"Roll Tide/War Eagle" Review

"Roll Tide/War Eagle" was good, but don't expect much detail on the time before these two started facing each other.
"Roll Tide/War Eagle" was good, but don't expect much detail on the time before these two started facing each other.

I grew up in suburban Orlando, Florida. I was raised a Gator fan, with my first trip to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium coming when I was just four years old.

With that kind of background, I cannot truly know what the Alabama-Auburn rivalry is like. The state I grew up in had two NFL teams when I was born and added a third NFL team, two NBA, two MLB, and two NHL franchises before I was done with middle school. There were plenty of pro sports teams to choose from. In addition, none of UF's rivalries have a big brother/little brother feel to them. They don't have an ivory tower/ag school dichotomy either.

The lack of pro teams and the big difference between the two schools are commonly cited for why Alabama-Auburn has grown into the monster rivalry it is, and that extends to the "Roll Tide/War Eagle" documentary that ESPN ran last night. Ostensibly it was devoted to the rivalry between the schools, but it wasn't really.

It felt to me like someone at the worldwide leader wanted to make a "30 for 30"-type film about the last two-plus years of college football in the state of Alabama, but they realized they couldn't really do it. To understand the last couple of years, you have to understand something of the history in the series. Therefore, it seemed like the filmmakers threw some hastily compiled highlights of the history in the first act before getting to the good stuff. The "good stuff" being the story of 2009-11, of course.

Ultimately that's fine with me, because it is a story worth telling and preserving on film. The same state produced back-to-back national champions and back-to-back Heisman winners. Three of those were surprises, as neither Mark Ingram nor Cam Newton were on many (if any) preseason Heisman watch lists and the '10 Tigers were ranked in the 20s in the preseason. The state of Florida produced plenty of national champions and Heismans from its big three schools over the last 30 years, but it failed to ever go back-to-back in either both (Miami and FSU got back-to-back statuettes in 1992-93). When you combine all of that on-field triumph with the heart wrenching 2011 tornado component, you get a story that is more than worthy of a documentary.

The glue that bound the whole movie together was the Paul Finebaum radio show, which is either a bad thing or appropriate depending on what you think of that program and its host. The only big issue I had with the documentary was that it used Harvey Updyke throughout as a talking head. Other talking heads included former players, former coaches and fans who are in split Alabama-Auburn marriages. They all added a lot of color, but putting Updyke on that level took something away from the film for me.

And yes, Updyke gets his time on camera. You can't tell the story they wanted to tell without it. They belabored the point a bit though; by my unofficial count, we got to hear the "Al from Dadeville" call to Finebaum at least three times. I can see it both ways. If the Toomer's oaks don't make it, Updyke's poisoning of them will be an event that leaves an indelible mark on the rivalry. At the same time, I hated to see a nut job get so much (more) air time.

Overall, the film was well put together. The video was crisp, the pace was perfect, and it felt like the filmmakers accomplished all of their goals (if I'm guessing correctly as to what those goals were). This was film I thought would be better at a length of two hours instead of one though. It would have been nice to dive deeper into one of the truly unique rivalries in all of sport. The depth of the 2009-11 material was great; getting to that depth on things a little less recent would have been even better. The target audience for the documentary probably knows most of the recent stuff by heart anyway.

I would encourage you to catch (or record) a rerun of "Roll Tide/War Eagle" whenever it comes on again. It's worth your time to watch it. Just don't believe its billing as a documentary on the entire Alabama-Auburn rivalry. It's really just a documentary on the recent events in the series, but those events do make a compelling story.