First off, apologies to director Errol Morris for giving away the slowly-revealed point of his new short movie Subterranean Stadium, streaming now at ESPN's Grantland website as part of their Errol Morris Week and his "It's Not Crazy, It's Sports" film series. On the surface, it's a profile of a bunch of guys in upstate New York who are obsessed with playing electric football, the primitive tabletop predecessor to video games.
It's really a movie about a Vietnam veteran who's struggled with health issues related to Agent Orange exposure and how his connections with family and friends helped him cope. Electric football is just the pastime he used to make those connections. Go here to watch the movie, as ESPN still hasn't fixed its embeddable video to work on our publishing platform (a/k/a the world's most popular).
Errol Morris previously directed the Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara and The Known Unknown, last year's equally provocative film about Donald Rumsfeld. Going back to the late '70s, he's done a lot to establish the now-common opinion that documentaries can be every bit as entertaining as feature films, making movies about pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time), the dysfunctional Texas justice system (The Thin Blue Line) and a wild one about a former beauty queen who kidnaps her Mormon boyfriend and becomes a UK media obsession (Tabloid). Most of these movies are available on Netflix and you can rent all of them from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.
Back to electric football: John DiCarlo leads a group of guys playing a kids game in his elaborately-decorated basement. The Charlotte Electric Football League has played once a week since 1981 and calls itself the longest-running electric football league in the world. As the film unspools, it turns out John has known most of the old guys since high school. Some of them have had issues with the law, some with alcohol and drugs. They're remained friends no matter what and the league acts as a support group. John has even recruited nephews and his grandson to join the games over the years. He's spent thousands of hours customizing the players and building out his game room.
The real star of the movie is John's wife, Cindy. They met before his service, she gave him love and support through his illness and the film makes it look like she supported the family financially over the last couple of decades as the owner of a Rochester meat market.
On the surface, it's still a funny movie about the dumb things guys do in the spirit of male bonding. But there's a deeper point about how important those connections can be and how community can help people deal with life's rough spots. Watch it online or via the WatchESPN app that runs on Apple TV, Roku or Amazon Fire boxes.
And check out John's tour of Subterranean Stadium from YouTube: