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The Play

(2015) *** Unrated
75 min. Smarthouse Creative. Director: Peter Vogt. Cast: Joe Kapp, Paul Wiggin, John Elway.

/content/films/4849/1.jpgEver since “The Big Game” of 1982, Stanford and Cal football players, coachs, alums, and fans—not to mention sports fans worldwide—have regarded the last four seconds of play with awe and a certain degree of puzzlement and/or self-righteous certitude. The final play of the game has gone down in sports lore as both a dazzling demonstration of strategy and skill on the part of the U.C. Berkeley California Golden Bears and a jaw-dropping, chaotic experience that, perhaps poorly resolved by officials, remains open to sports-bar arguments. Peter Vogt’s documentary The Play revisits those four seconds and the history around them.

Vogt teases “the play,” then backs up to contextualize the longstanding rivalry between the Bears and the Stanford Cardinal that enshrined the annual “Big Game” as an annual moment of, at best, semi-friendly rivalry. In parsing the 1982 game, Vogt makes good use of all of the available game-play footage and conducts plenty of new interviews with, among others, Cal coach Joe Kapp and Stanford coach Paul Wiggin, Stanford quarterback John Elway (later yet more famous as the Denver Broncos’ QB), Cal announcer Joe Starkey of KGO radio, and Stanford band trombone player Gary Tyrell, who has lost track of how many interviews he’s given about being knocked flat in the end zone during the play.

Starkey’s manic calling of the play remains synonymous with the fame of the play itself, and in particular, the phrase “The band is out on the field!”, obvious though it may be, has entered the pantheon of great sportscasting moments. Tyrell was one of those errant musicians to take the field before the game had ended, complicating a play already destined to be controversial for its handling by officials (one of whom also goes on record for Vogt). Given the prominence of the band in the story, Vogt also gives a history of the raucous and at-times polarizing group.

As the interviews here make clear (especially the pained ones from the 1982 Stanford team), “the play” remains living history in contention, with the teams regularly changing the score listed on the ceremonial trophy passed back and forth between the two schools. One case argues, pointing to video evidence, that play should have ended before a series of laterals and the end-run got the ball into the end zone, while others can confidently stand behind the official ruling that the play was good. In any case, “the play”—since commemorated in merch aplenty, a Super Bowl ad, countless sports-TV retrospectives, and its own Wikipedia page—still makes great drama.

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