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Super Bowl Report

9. 'Paper Lion'

February 01, 2009|Reed Johnson

As a founding father of the New Journalism, George Plimpton practically created an entire genre of reportage: the first-person memoir of an amateur impersonating a professional athlete. In a way, Plimpton's account of his bruising makeover into a Detroit Lions quarterback during training camp and a preseason scrimmage was the forerunner of all the current reality shows in which ordinary folks attempt to pass themselves off as stars.

The difference between Plimpton and the mass of today's would-be celebrity narcissistsis that the man was truly talented and his book stands up as a sports-culture classic. So does Alex March's film, starring Alan Alda, another cerebral nice guy, as Plimpton, along with a host of real Lions (Alex Karras, Roger Brown) as themselves.

Like the book, the 1968 movie unfolds as a kind of pigskin version of a Buster Keaton comedy, with Alda/Plimpton as the baffled Everyman scrambling for dear life, trying to keep Absurdist Mishap from turning into Total Disaster. Like Fred Exley's semiautobiographical novel "A Fan's Notes," about an ordinary Joe's hero worship of Giants' running back Frank Gifford, "Paper Lion" chain-measures the yawning gulf that separates genuine action heroes from the rest of us mortals.

The audience comes away from "Paper Lion" with a respect for the modern-day gladiators who put their pride on the line every autumn Sunday, as opposed to the armchair quarterbacks who just flap their jaws. We also come to admire Plimpton's valiant enterprise -- not simply to make a fool of himself for our entertainment but to fail nobly on our behalf.

-- Reed Johnson

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