Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Keepers of the Flame (2014)

By Travis Vogan

Pro football fans of a certain vintage can turn nostalgic in a second when the subject of NFL Films comes up.

They no doubt grew up with that organization's programs, which included highlight shows during the season and special documentaries that popped up throughout the year. The father-son team of Ed and Steve Sabol led the company in producing distinctive programs that did a fabulous job for promoting the NFL, starting in 1962-63.

Just ask a fan of those golden years in the 1960s and 1970s when NFL Films' work was close to revolutionary, and three specific areas will undoubtedly come up. There was the camera work, specializing in slow motion shots of a ball spiraling through the air. There was the voice of John Facenda, whose slow, dramatic delivery gave the scripts added weight. Throw in the unforgettable and underrated musical work of Sam Spence - heck, I have a double CD of his work - and the whole package was unforgettable.

All of this makes for good fodder for a book, and Travis Vogan has written one. It's called "Keepers of the Flame," a reference to a remark by George Halas, the late Bears owner, about keeping the league's past alive to the next generation of fans.

This is more of an academic look at the subject, which shouldn't be surprising. Vogan teaches journalism at the University of Iowa. He says it's the first book to take that approach in examining NFL Films, and I don't doubt it.

Vogan must have watched a ton of NFL programming, because he certainly writes with authority about the shows that have been produced over the past 50 years or so. He also did plenty of research, and not just because the list of footnotes and sources of information in the back of the book is huge.

It's also interesting to read his conclusions about NFL Films. He more or less says that the company was a victim of its own success. The NFL has grown enormously over that half-century, meaning that the film division isn't the only game in town when it comes to highlights. Other media outlets - from cable television to your phone apps - have an appetite for immediate video, which makes NFL Films' slightly more leisurely approach seem dated. Vogan's conclusions are generally right on target.

Still, this is a difficult book to try to review and rate. That's mostly because it's reads something like a series of college lectures or a text book. It's relatively short, for starters. Vogan says what he's going to do, does it, and then recaps the process. That makes it feel a bit padded, even at less than 200 pages of text.

Vogan makes the curious decision of not including very many quotes from any sources here. That definitely makes the text on the dry side. Some of the language and phrases is repeated here and there during the course of the story, which doesn't help either. And some of the references, at the least, will go sailing well over the head of many football fans.

Basically, readers of "Keepers of the Flame" should know what they are reading ahead of time. It's easy to believe that some sort of history of NFL Films should crackle with excitement. This pretty clearly is not that book - and it wasn't intended to be. That means a mass audience won't be found. However, those looking for the academic side of the story should find this useful.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

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