Nobody looks quite right as TNT attempts to tell it like it was when “Monday Night Football” rose up through the 1970s with Howard Cosell at the center of a quirky and splintered announcing booth. When actors are forced to play such a strong collection of well-known faces, there is invariably a thin line between caricature (Keith Jackson) and character (Leonard Goldenson), and some of what ends up onscreen owes more to scripting than depiction. Some of the fault lies in the lack of resemblances, some to the uncomfortable costuming of the era. But the best of the lot do their guys right — John Turturro as Cosell, John Heard as the rising ABC Sports and News exec Roone Arledge, Kevin Anderson as Frank Gifford. Once viewers get adjusted to guises, the by-the-book script from the New York Times’ Bill Carter, combined with Ernest Dickerson’s no-nonsense direction, make “Monday Night Mayhem” a reasonably strong telling of Cosell’s rise as an American icon and “MNF” as an entertainment paragon.
There will never be another Cosell — even when he was alive and working, impersonators who could do a dead-on Nixon couldn’t get ol’ Howie’s inflections right. Credit Turturro for maintaining a consistency in his perf — and that’s not faint praise: He never wavers in his performance as the man who feels perennially slighted and eventually pigeon-holed in an arena far below his self-determined worth. Turturro, unforgettable as the real-life Herbie Stempel in “Quiz Show,” makes strong acting decisions throughout, though there’s a sense his perf could still have the air of truth even if he wasn’t trying to nail all of Cosell’s tics.
Patti LuPone plays wife Emmy as a silent support, the member of the Cosell household capable of putting on a cheery front and calming Howard in his moments of inner turmoil.
Story covers 10-plus years — the ’70s and then some — and is more about Cosell than the team that brought football to primetime. It is through his eyes that we see the assembling of the announcing team; it’s Cosell’s demands and exasperated tone that define “Mayhem”; and it’s his pushing for a slot on the Olympics telecast that’s used for added drama, which makes the telepic seem a little overlong. For better or worse, it makes Cosell the cornerstone, slyly hinting the franchise has never found its footing since his departure. (“Mayhem” does not go beyond the hiring of Al Michaels).
Cosell’s relationship with Arledge is the show’s most riveting aspect as Heard gives a thoughtful and deep perf. When Cosell is in the booth, though, he’s butting heads, for the most part, with a hillbilly (Brad Beyer as an unconvincing Dandy Don Meredith), a stumbling newcomer trying to find a style (Kevin Anderson as Frank Gifford) and an overwrought Keith Jackson (played with far too much bravado by Shuler Hensley). The two former QBs try to alienate Cosell; it only serves to increase his level of determination.
The rest of Cosell’s partners scurry through the booth — Alex Karras, Fred Williamson and O.J. Simpson — as the story goes into hyperdrive, stopping to hit “MNF’s” two better-known announcing feats: Meredith’s joke about a fan thinking his team is No. 1 and Cosell breaking the news that John Lennon had been shot and killed.
Other chief characters, however, bog down the story. Nicholas Turturro, looking like he’s playing dress-up with a Jersey goombah’s wardrobe, plays the out-of-control gambler and womanizer Chet Forte; his dramatic story belongs in another movie. Zak Orth plays Don Ohlmeyer as an oaf; Jay Thomas possesses none of Pete Rozelle’s panache.
Director of photography Jonathan Freeman and production designer Kalina Ivanov made interesting decisions throughout the pic, giving it a patina of 1970s made-fors. It’s a perfect look. Far from perfect, disappointing even, are the alleged NFL game films that, for starters, make Joe Namath and the New York Jets look like a bunch of fat laggards. Hey, they were pretty good back then.