Review: Showtime Honors The Service Academies

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On the surface, Showtime’s A Game of Honor is about wanting to “sing second.” That’s what the victors in the longstanding college football rivalry between Army and Navy get to do upon game’s conclusion — join in a rendition of their alma mater, ahead of their vanquished foe.

But the feature-length documentary, which bows on the premium network on Dec. 21 at 10 p.m. (ET/PT), is about so much more. And the best parts of the film, narrated by Gary Sinise, don’t pertain to pigskin.

With an assist from the service academies, including Air Force, all of which provided various levels of access (it appears that Army afforded the most), CBS Sports creative director Pete Radovich, Jr., who serves as coordinating producer for Showtime’s Emmy Award-winning series Inside the NFL, and Steve Karasik, CBS Sports coordinating producer, have done a superb job of chronicling the build-up to the only game that truly matters for the venerable institutions in West Point and Annapolis. Their achievement is even more remarkable considering that they only fashioned the idea for the film at this year’s The Masters, a point they revealed after a Dec. 19 screening at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art.

Radovich and Karasik provide a season-long glimpse of the Black Knights and Midshipmen, both of which finished below .500, gearing up for the school’s 112th meeting on Dec. 10 at FedEx Field, home to the NFL’s Washington Redskins. For the first time in a decade, the game was competitive, but Navy nevertheless ran its winning skein to 10.

Low-angle shots bring viewers right down to the floor of practice facilities with rubber pelts bouncing, to game scorers bounding into your living room’s end zone.

The story is framed from the perspectives of a handful of students at various points of in their academy careers, including Navy frosh, Maika Polamalu, cousin of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy, who immediately faces a dilemma about honoring his Samoan heritage or his country.

Throughout, the film captures the pride and passion of these unique young men, and how they honor and balance their grueling, regimented schedule in the classroom, hard-core training in the field and the respite that comes from the gridiron. While their commitment to five years of post-graduate service is certainly admirable, most will view their decisions as highly questionable, particularly given their Ivy League-level academic capabilities that would yield safer, more lucrative career paths.

To the filmmakers and academies credit, the documentary stops well short of being a recruitment vehicle. Interviews with family members provide a sobering sense of what military life means during wartime. Those points are presented from the vantage of wife and mother trying to bridge the trepidation and distance of her husband’s service abroad, and underlined by a visit from First Lt. Tyson Quink, a 2009 West Point grad, who suffered a major physical loss in serving his country. The ultimate sacrifice is also discussed openly.

The most poignant moments come from mothers shedding tears of pride, impending absence and fear as their sons receive their “Call of Duty” assignments, where the consequences are far greater than the video games civilians play.

Whether you fall on the side of “Go Army, Beat Navy,” “Beat Navy, Go Army,” or don’t have any rooting interest in the schools or college football, do the honorable thing: tune in the doc.