Review – ESPN Films’ “Roll Tide/War Eagle”

As someone who was born in the state of Alabama, it’s impossible for me to watch Roll Tide/War Eagle, the latest production from ESPN Films, without feeling some pretty intense emotions. As you’ll see in the film, which airs Tuesday night at 8 pm Eastern on ESPN, being a part of this rivalry means that true objectivity and impartiality is not something you can ever realistically have when looking at the other side, no matter what any journalist covering either of the two teams may tell you. It’s hard to describe to an outsider how all-encompassing, how mind-blowingly intense, and at times how truly miserable it is to be a part of this rivalry – but this movie comes as close as it gets. If I ever need to choose one document to explain what it’s like to live in the state of Alabama, this movie would be it.

That sounds like extremely high praise but it’s really more of an indication of how completely misunderstood this rivalry has been for the length of its existence until very recently. The nation was shocked by the bizarre incident of an Alabama fan poisoning a group of landmark trees on Auburn’s campus last year and while it was certainly an abnormal occurrence, people who live in this state have heard of stranger and more violent happenings resulting from the Iron Bowl rivalry. To the rest of the nation, sports rivalries are something worth getting excited about for a few days a year, the days that the games are occurring. In Alabama, without exception, it’s something that is a part of every single day of your life. That includes Christmas (Auburn or Alabama ornaments on every tree), Thanksgiving (families mentioning Iron Bowl victories among things they are thankful for), and even your own wedding day (so help you God if you planned your wedding on a fall Saturday).

It’s a strange and unique phenomenon that has badly needed exploring by a talented filmmaker and director Martin Khodabakhshian handles it with delicacy by giving both sides equal time to explain their greatest moments and their perspective of the other side. He also chooses both some the most beloved figures from each side (Greg McElroy and Mark Ingram from Alabama, Pat Dye and Bo Jackson from Auburn) as well as some of the most controversial figures from each side (Harvey Updyke, the aforementioned tree-poisoner from Alabama, scandal-plagued Heisman-winner Cam Newton from Auburn) for interviews and manages to get some real insight from every person involved, which is no easy feat considering they are talking about one of the most sensitive subjects they’ve ever been a part of.

ESPN Films in its short life has already produced some of the most fascinating and deeply moving sports documentaries of all time, particularly during its 30 for 30 series that ran on ESPN last year. It has explored much darker and more serious subjects than the Iron Bowl in films like June 17th, 1994 and The Two Escobars (their two finest works so far, in my opinion) but when it comes to getting to the heart of a unique American sports phenomenon, I don’t know that ESPN or anyone else has done a better job than what we see in Roll Tide/War Eagle.

The segment of the film focusing on the strange and sad story of Harvey Updyke was probably the most effective part of the film for me, even though it is the least representative of the normal state of affairs here in Alabama. Updyke is a man who feels both ashamed and astonished at what he did but also deep down has some satisfaction and justification and even pride about what he did. He serves as a parable of what can happen when one lets this rivalry burrow too deeply into the mind and heart. At the end of the day, letting the rivalry get your emotions flowing is part of what makes it fun but you have to learn to turn it off or you could end up like poor Harvey.

Perhaps the most impressive feat of the film is the filmmakers’ resistance to draw some sort of narrative conclusion involving the April tornados that ravaged Tuscaloosa. Many of the less nuanced in-state journalists lept at the opportunity to decide that Alabama and Auburn fans had somehow had their perspectives changed by the tragedy, that it had brought them together and made them forget their silly, petty quarrels. The problem with that viewpoint is that it assumes there is something inherently wrong or petty about the Iron Bowl rivalry. There are freaks out there who take things too far but for the majority of us fans, it’s the source of some of our greatest joys in life. The truth is, people in Alabama love this rivalry and wouldn’t know what to do without it. That’s why the rivalry didn’t diminish one bit after the tornadoes and why it never will as long as both teams continue to care deeply about football.