In one respect, at least, the latest entry in NFL Films’ 30 for 30 canon, Al Davis vs. the NFL, is precisely what you think it will be. The story is likely familiar to anyone with knowledge of the Raiders or NFL history, covering the 1966 AFL-NFL merger, the Raiders’ move to Los Angeles, and the ensuing antitrust suit against the NFL. The documentary focuses on the fractious relationship between longtime Raiders owner Al Davis and then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, onetime colleagues turned bitter sparring partners. There is plenty of Davis bombast and no fewer than four renditions of “The Autumn Wind.” None of it is terribly shocking.
That is, except for one thing: the completely bonkers decision to have deepfakes of Davis and Rozelle narrate the entire documentary themselves.
When I say deepfakes—well, I mean deepfakes. Rozelle passed away in 1996, Davis in 2011. They appear throughout the documentary as CGI reanimations of their former selves, pacing around the Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas—which, needless to say, was a big ol’ pit of sand during both men’s lives. (Did you think the league would pass up a promotional opportunity? Sin City, baby!) Things get weird immediately: While the deepfakes aren’t present in the official trailer, it takes less than a minute to get to a creepy, uncanny-valley version of Davis loitering around the Vegas stadium’s upper deck—in front of the 85-foot memorial torch built in his honor.
But the reanimated Davis and Rozelle do so much more than loiter. Horrifyingly, they also talk, a feat made possible by voice actors hired to do impersonations of both—a performance that would have been better left on some other corner of the Strip.
“I only wanted to be loved by my playas,” the not-quite-Davis drawls to the camera. “It appeared the players had somehow scraped my signature off the ball—no other part of the field was affected. Imagine that,” the not-quite-Rozelle hauntingly chuckles.
The deepfaked duo pace through the empty halls of Allegiant Stadium—Davis, of course, in his signature white tracksuit. They climb stairs. They lean together on railings and contemplate the, um, splendor of either a brand-new taxpayer-funded stadium or of finding themselves once more upon this mortal coil. Have I mentioned that it’s really, really weird?
A provided statement from director Ken Rodgers crows about the decision to use creepy computer puppets, first by lamenting that Davis and Rozelle were themselves unavailable: “While we could have taken the tact of interviewing the tertiary figures who witnessed the drama between Rozelle and Davis in order to tell this story,” Rodgers said, “we kept coming back to one basic premise: No one can, and no one should, tell this story other than Rozelle and Davis themselves.”
Life—wait, no—finds a way. Continued Rodgers: “Then we discovered the online world of ‘deep fake impersonations’ and began to pursue digital technology to re-create the visual essences of Rozelle and Davis, as if their spirits were still with us.”
Ah yes, the wonders of a technology mostly known for its pornography and terrifying infosec possibilities. Miraculous!
Not that anyone’s likely to mistake these clips for the genuine article: The rendering here makes Princess Leia’s jaunt through the vacuum of space seem positively realistic. Their faces are doughy and plasticky and wrong, in a way that makes Davis’s later years feel positively charming in retrospect.
The weirdness, of course, goes beyond the aesthetics. Rozelle and Davis’s “dialogue” makes for a decidedly strange text, journalistically. The quotes aren’t exactly controversial, and pull from what the filmmakers describe as “extensive research into both the NFL Films archives” and coverage of the Raiders’ 1980s legal battles. But they’re also … not actually quotes? Documentaries are by definition works of nonfiction; once you start dabbling in fabulism, you’re operating on a different plane entirely. Interviews—particularly on-camera ones—are all about what you can get a source to say, whether it’s some grand revelation or just a dropping of the public veil. There is not a journalist anywhere who hasn’t wished at some point that their interviewee put things slightly more clearly or succinctly or openly, gave them just an ever-so-slightly better quote—or that they could include the voices of different sources entirely, ones they couldn’t get because they didn’t want to participate or because, well, they’re no longer around.
Here, NFL Films has very literally put words in Davis and Rozelle’s mouths. Maybe they’re true to the history of the events in question and to the real Davis and Rozelle, but they’re not real. For as much as Al Davis vs. the NFL purports to be a tribute to the lives and work of two men, it’s also done them a disservice.
Also, you know: It’s creepy as hell.