More of a great memory revisited than an insightful documentary, HBO’s “The Wild Ride to Super Bowl 1” surfs the upcoming Big Game’s hype wave as it replays the 1967 Packers-Chiefs title game through the memories of several participants. Despite the determined efforts of producers who want to liken the inaugural battle to a shift in American sensibilities and a foreteller of more complex times, the footage of gridiron warriors like Max McGee, Fred Williamson, Len Dawson and Boyd Dowler — while a blast to watch — just doesn’t have the social resonance this project covets from the first frame onward.
“Ride” tries to place the competition within the framework of a society that is undergoing significant change. Indeed, there is film of Lyndon Johnson on the White House lawn; there is brief mention of the Vietnam War; and there’s even an interview with astronaut Wally Schirra, who recalls the mood of America at the time when three died in a grounded fire aboard Apollo 1.
But all of this culture association is a stretch, since the Super Bowl has never been a reflection of the times in the manner of say, music, fashion or film. The more fascinating element here was the AFL-NFL merger itself, which, while certainly featured as a backdrop here, could have been the subject of a more substantial documentary on its own.
The union forced a “stepchild” attitude that became the main reason Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi felt pressure to demolish Kansas City (The Pack won 35-10). At the time, the NFL, home to powers like the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants, felt embarrassed and peeved that commissioner Pete Rozelle had agreed to align with a weaker league with inferior teams and talent.
The Lombardi-K.C. coach Hank Stram showdown becomes the real focus of “Wild Ride,” as the two, Lombardi a cranky warrior and Stram a Napoleonic clown, sniped at each other and each other’s conferences through a group of journalists who collectively pale in comparison to today’s global coverage.
The actual game, named after a Super Ball toy, took place on Jan. 15, 1967, at the L.A. Coliseum. The differences between then and now are astounding: Tickets ranged from $6 to $12, two networks (CBS and NBC) carried the game, 30,000 seats went unfilled and Los Angeles was blacked out. Thirty-second ads cost a “mere” $42,000.
As with most sports docus — at which HBO is becoming the undisputed leader based on volume and chosen moments — the collection of participants for “The Wild Ride” is its greatest asset. Hearing Williamson talk about his “Hammer” sensibilities, watching a press conference with Rozelle and Lamar Hunt or listening to tales of night-before drunken partying from McGee are as vital to the doc’s attitude as the game’s original broadcast, minutes of which have been restored to almost pristine quality.