Saturday, October 19, 2013

'Big Shootout' film explores more than football

Posted By on Sat, Oct 19, 2013 at 10:35 AM

click to enlarge bigshootout69-2.jpg

For those of us reared in Razorback Country from the 1970s onward, there's a pervading belief from prior generations that we newbies just don't "get" the magnitude of what happened on December 6, 1969.

I'm as guilty as anyone of dismissing the (in)famous Arkansas-Texas game of that date as being just one of many heartbreakers for this perennially downtrodden fan base. After all, Texas has beaten Arkansas at a 72.7 percent clip over decades of alleged rivalry. It's not like getting beaten by the burnt orange was novel prior to that, or after it, right?

What Mike Looney's expertly crafted documentary, "The Big Shootout," attempts to do is somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, he wants to show late-comers like myself just how agonizing a loss this was for an Arkansas program then on the rise. Conversely, by shedding light on the bond that has been forged between members of both teams in recent years, Looney is also putting us all on notice that this was a special affair that should be worthy of far fonder reflection given the societal tumult in which it was played.

Consider this: Instead of Hog fans fretting about gagging away a 14-point lead and lamenting the 3rd-and-7 decision to pass (more on that in a bit), shouldn't we perhaps remember that this was the game "Dixie" stopped playing in the stands? Or that President Nixon, perched in the western bleachers like any other freezing fan that day, could see a chilling Vietnam protest in the knoll on the opposite side? Or that this was, for all intents and purposes, the last real clash of all-white titans in collegiate sport? There was an undercurrent of American history in this game that cannot be undersold. 
That said, the fatalist view of Razorback fans has pinpointed this moment as the sort of symbolic epicenter of all the woes that have befallen the program. If you enmesh yourself in the players' retelling of events — Looney notably eschews any kind of narration and simply lets the interviews speak for themselves — you understand why. The Hogs bolted out to a 14-0 lead, largely because the QB-WR battery of Bill Montgomery and Chuck Dicus was almost a novelty in that era of run-oriented football, and because Texas was uncharacteristically loose with the ball.

Looney mined the best footage of the game and the lead-up to it, and while there's a fairly linear progression to it all, the director spices things up with a classic rock soundtrack and weaves in some notable quips from the principals. More than 25 participants from the ballgame provide the commentary to move the proceedings along, and the documentary runs the gamut from poignant to comedic as a result. There are highlights and lowlights I'll not deign to spoil here, but Looney manages to take a rather broad array of quips and clips and synthesize it nicely.

Those with a sadistic bent will probably have their curiosity most piqued by the Arkansas players' retelling of the 3rd-and-7 decision in the fourth quarter. The Hogs led 14-8 after Texas' James Street scampered for a long score and the Longhorns converted a surprise two-point attempt; Montgomery bootlegged left inside the Horns' 10 and tried to find Dicus but was picked off. To this day, Hog fans lament the decision to go for broke when a chip-shot field goal by All-American Bill McClard would've made it a two-possession game.

The interviewees — to wit, Frank Broyles and many of his former charges — suggest that the Hogs' offensive coordinator Don Breaux made the fateful call. Given that Breaux was known for bringing the passing wrinkle to the offense, it's not shocking, but it is a little suspect that Breaux wasn't interviewed for the film. There's certainly no measure of ambiguity in how the players regard the choice now, 44 years later: Everyone interviewed said the field goal should have been attempted, and Montgomery says the play still haunts him.

From there, the Street-to-Peschel heave and the last, coffin-sealing interception by Montgomery put Texas on its national title path, and the Razorbacks ended up losing their bowl game and entertaining the "what ifs" for decades. The epilogue is happier, and during the film's preview screening at the Clinton Presidential Center on Sept. 5, Street joined a litany of ex-Hogs in attendance and drew just applause from an obviously one-sided crowd for his reverent comments about the state and the program that most of its citizens zealously embrace. Just weeks after the event, Street died in his Austin home of an apparent heart attack.

"The Big Shootout" screens at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. It's also up for the inaugural Best Sports Documentary Prize, to be announced tonight.

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