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Al Davis vs. NFL documentary brings feud back to life

Imagine if former Raiders owner Al Davis were inside Allegiant Stadium in one of the luxury suites he wanted oh so badly at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Now imagine former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle there as well. Inside Davis’ Death Star. Unknowingly preparing to align with his rival. The bane of his professional existence.

That’s what NFL Films vice president Ken Rodgers does in his newest documentary, “Al Davis vs. the NFL,” which airs at 6 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.

“The stadium represents the end of hostilities between the Raiders’ organization and the National Football League,” Rodgers said. “It’s a perfect time to not just feature the relationship between Al Davis and Pete Rozelle, but to capture a moment in time where that relationship is now over.”

Rodgers resurrects the two luminaries in his documentary and allows them to tell the story of their legendary feud as if they were still alive today. He does this with “deepfake,” a type of digital technology that recreates them in their physical being — allowing for a tasteful homage to two of the greatest figures in NFL history.

The deepfake versions of Davis and Rozelle rely on voice actors to share their respective perspectives on what made the relationship so tense, and why they were acting in what they believed to be league’s best interests.

Riveting archival interview footage is used to supplement their commentary, making for a fascinating 80-minute exploration of Davis’ desire for a “state-of-the-art stadium.”

“We weren’t going to tell the story from one side or the other. In reality, we felt both sides had fair points,” Rodgers said. “They both foster what they thought was right.”

The film opens with a few panoramic shots of Las Vegas and Allegiant Stadium, a obvious nod to the type of facility that Davis had always wanted for the Raiders. It touches on the back stories of both Davis and Rozelle, and how they ascended into their respective roles in the NFL.

The crux of their beef centered around Davis’ willingness to rebel. To stand up for what he believed was best for the Raiders, their players and the league itself.

He sought to play in a stadium like Allegiant — or the prorated version in the 1980s — and was willing to go just about anywhere to get it. That dismayed Rozelle, who thought such a move could set the precedent for NFL anarchy.

There were lawsuits and lawyers, and well, the documentary gets into all the nitty gritty. Turns out Davis and Rozelle had a lot more in common than they thought. That being the hope for a bigger and better NFL.

Rodgers expertly weaves the deepfake with the interviews, making for a seamless transition between present and past. His team of producers combed through documents and transcripts to ensure the most realistic dialogues between the two characters.

“We feel very confident about the accuracy of what they are saying in the film,” Rodgers said. “And we felt that was very important, even though they are speaking from another realm. We’re not making up things. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t speaking for them, and they were speaking for themselves.”

Rodgers was inspired to direct a film about the Raiders after overseeing the production of HBO’s Hard Knocks in 2019, when the team was featured. He said Davis has been “at the top of our list at NFL Films,” since the studio was founded in 1962. Production for the project was greenlighted in 2020, and Rodgers came to Las Vegas in November to film.

His crew included a few local producers and technicians, and they prepared three days for one 20-hour day of filming. Production concluded at the end of the season and promotion began in January.

“This location represents the end of their war,” Rodgers said. “It felt right as soon as we came up with that because it allowed us to have them give their perspectives from the current day.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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