I was pretty excited about the second episode of Untold‘s third volume on Netflix. Johnny Football promised a significant look into the career and life of former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, and it delivered.
However, the film drops off once Manziel is drafted by the Cleveland Browns, seemingly speeding through Manziel’s disastrous tenure in the NFL and some of his shocking revelations about his life as a professional.
First, here’s the synopsis from Netflix, where the film will premiere Tuesday.
In 2012, the brightest star in all of sports was an undersized freshman quarterback at unheralded Texas A&M, whose fervor on the field was rivaled only by his hard-partying ways off it. Dubbed “Johnny Football,” the magnetic football player captured the nation’s attention and initially relished his alter ego: “I wanted to be Johnny Football. Johnny Football never had a bad time,” he says. But as the money rolled in, the scrutiny heightened, and Manziel rejected his newfound fame and suddenly lost his way. With astonishing candor, Manziel – along with his family, coaches, his former best friend, and his agent – details what happened behind the scenes as scandals piled up in the glare of paparazzi flashbulbs. He fumbled his shot at NFL success after the Cleveland Browns picked him in the first round of the NFL draft in 2014, but Manziel went on to search for something even greater: inner peace and happiness with a quieter life that he reveals here.
Johnny Football covers Manziel’s entire football career, from his prep years at Tivy High School (complete with footage from some absurd performances) through his brief NFL career. The Texas A&M years contain the best content of the film, including plenty of good interview clips from Kliff Kingsbury, Manziel’s offensive coordinator during his Heisman-winning season with the Aggies. Nate Fitch, one of Manziel’s closest friends and confidantes at A&M, also provides plenty of context and explanations for what was going on with Manziel off the field.
And man, there was *a lot* going on off the field. Covering Manziel during his two college seasons was a beat in and of itself, and he always seemed to be in the headlines for one reason or another. Fitch and Manziel explain the autograph operation in detail, also admitting they concocted a story about the wealth of Manziel’s family to explain away his newfound money and perks.
Throughout the documentary, director Ryan Duffy (who also directed the previous Untold feature The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist and was a co-showrunner on all of Untold Vol. 3) attempts to cast Manziel as someone who everyone tried to get something from during his time in College Station. To a degree, he’s successful. Duffy shows how much money the school made off of Manziel, how much students and fans wanted to be around Manziel, and how much of a lightning rod he was in the media.
But when it comes to his college years, Manziel is mostly unrepentant for many of his actions. You feel for Manziel to a certain degree, but you’re never able to get all the way there. It’s frustrating, especially as Johnny Football plays out and more of his demons are revealed.
Manziel’s struggles hit a fever pitch once he leaves Texas A&M and enters his name into the NFL Draft. He and agent Erik Burkhardt outline Manziel’s woes in the months leading up to the NFL Draft, and viewers can feel Burkhardt’s frustration as he discusses Manziel partying during the NFL Draft Combine.
After being drafted by the Cleveland Browns, you start feeling a bit more sympathetic for Manziel, as he opens up about his difficulties in Cleveland. He probably wouldn’t have succeeded in any market, but with the pressure put upon him in Cleveland, Manziel had no chance.
The stints Manziel had in various other leagues, including the Canadian Football League, the Alliance of American Football, and Fan Controlled Football (among others), are ignored. This is unfortunate because you’d imagine there would be some interesting stories about his time on and off the field out of the spotlight.
Manziel hits rock bottom, admits he planned on committing suicide after a final bender, and…then turns his life around? Johnny Football tries to put a bow on Manziel’s story, but there’s plenty of murkiness about how he’s turned over a new leaf and what he’s doing now
. It mostly seems like he’s working on himself out of the spotlight, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the arc feels incomplete. Instead of the rise and fall of Johnny Manziel, or the rise, fall, and rise of Manziel, it’s more like the rise, fall, and quasi-stabilization of Manziel. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that! But overall, it’s an unsatisfying end to the documentary, as true as it may be.
As we’ve seen in several previous editions of Untold, the usage of archival footage is top-notch in Johnny Football and helps indicate how haywire the Manziel frenzy had gotten. The usual sports media talking heads spit white hot Manziel takes daily after his latest on or off-field incident, and it’s hard to think of a college athlete that’s been under the microscope more since Manziel. The man was single-handedly fueling the hot-take industrial complex from ages 19 to 21! He went from the object of praise to scorn seemingly multiple times a week, and the conversations were dizzying. It was illuminating to see all of these opinions from both sports and non-sports figures highlighted in a shorter time period.
Johnny Football is one hell of a journey. A lot went on in the life and career of Manziel during his prime years. However, while the journey is mostly satisfying, the destination leaves more to be desired. I almost feel like this exact film could have had a more fulfilling ending if it came out a couple of years later, since Manziel’s personal life is still improving. A complete rebound could have truly nailed the ending, instead of leaving things feeling somewhat uncertain.
Untold: Johnny Football premieres Tuesday, Aug. 8 on Netflix.
[Image via Netflix]