“Good Clean American Fun” starts with the ending.
The film, which premiered Sunday afternoon on NBC Sports Chicago, begins with footage of Jake Saunders and Trevor Kent dousing their defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, with blue Gatorade following his 400th and final career victory as a coach, Northwestern’s season-capping Citrus Bowl win over Auburn. If you’re a Northwestern fan and are familiar with Hank and the 2020 ‘Cats, it’s enough to elicit some emotion all on its own.
The documentary finds its way back to Orlando several times, though, as it runs its course through the whirlwind of a year that 2020 was. And when it gets to the very same moment it begins with an hour and 25 minutes later, you can’t help but feel whatever emotions the opening sparked just a little bit deeper.
That’s because “Good Clean American Fun” takes you through parts of a familiar journey that you’d never seen before, and, in doing so, makes you appreciate just how incredible Northwestern’s turnaround from worst to first in the Big Ten West really was given the extraordinary circumstances it occurred under.
Directed by Ben Rohde and produced by NU Athletics’ Emmy Award-winning in-house film shop, Studio N, the documentary runs just under 90 minutes top to bottom. Its contents range from a postgame speech given by Pat Fitzgerald following the 2019 season-closing upset of Illinois in which he boldly (albeit correctly) proclaims that the team will go the the Big Ten Championship the following year to the scene after Greg Newsome II is selected by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Between those stops in time, viewers are treated to clips of practices, games, player interviews and more — some of which had never seen the public eye before. Aware of the fact that his primary audience — Northwestern fans — already knows how things will end, Rohde adopts a somewhat nonlinear narrative, allowing viewers to not get too bogged down in the dog days of the pandemic by placing scenes from quarantine side-by-side with ones from the build-up to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. It’s a masterful presentation in how to tell a story with so many wild twists and turns without ever losing focus.
“Good Clean American Fun” is not flawless, though, with one central issue lingering throughout: the often surprisingly small amount of time spent on some of the most uncomfortable and difficult moments in the 2020 Northwestern football story.
Most obviously, NU’s loss to Michigan State, which dashed the Wildcats’ College Football Playoff hopes and was undoubtedly their toughest on-field blow, gets only 30 seconds of runtime. To me, that’s not nearly enough for a pivotal event in the season.
Additionally, away from the field, the narrative shifts to the team’s response to the murder of George Floyd and the corresponding nationwide reckoning with police brutality and racial injustice that followed, it does so only momentarily. Sure, the documentary displays some clips of Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (who, the film notes, grew up just two blocks away from where Floyd was murdered) talking with fellow Big Ten football players about the world-shaking incident and the issues it raised on a national scale. It also provides a glimpse into the production of JR Pace’s “If You Cheer Us, Hear Us” video and shows a discussion between RCB and the team’s assistant equipment manager about what the team plans to do with its uniform and apparel to recognize the Black Lives Matter movement.
In those moments, though, the idea of a deeper conversation among teammates and peers is repeatedly mentioned without the viewer ever seeing those essential talks, which surely were more difficult and less polished than what was shown.
Even at one of its most poignant points — such as when Riley Lees, audibly exasperated in the midst of a season away from loved ones, says that he doesn’t know when the last time he saw his family or girlfriend was before stating that he “didn’t see them for Thanksgiving, probably won’t see ‘em for Christmas” — “Good Clean American Fun” doesn’t really let the darkness develop before fleeting to the next joy-inducing clip. As such, I was left to wonder whether the sweet scenes could’ve been even sweeter when even more juxtaposed with the bitter ones.
But this doesn’t have to be the place for wholly thorough storytelling. Some things are allowed to simply be fun. The 2020 season was surely full of fun for NU and all of its supporters, and fun is, appropriately, in the title of the movie, which features (in no particular order):
- an elaborate prank played by Fitz and Kurt Anderson on the offensive line corps
- a shirtless and flexing Coach Hank
- Riley Lees’ iconic mic’d up practice after Joey Galloway referred to the Wildcats as “a bunch of Rece Davises”
- A montage of Hank bickering at his defense in practice after Paddy Fisher mimics him during an interview doing just that...
... and more. There’s no shortage of feel-good content here, and through it all, you’re reminded of just how likable this Northwestern team was. More than ever, you can see in “Good Clean American Fun” the sacrifices the Wildcats made to keep each other healthy and the team functioning during a pandemic, a product of the culture of camaraderie Fitz has built into the program.
All in all, the documentary is 90 minutes of some of the best recruiting material the program could have at its disposal, both for potential players and potential fans. It shows that Northwestern football truly is a family, one that carries itself with pride despite its naysayers and grace in the wake of incredible accomplishments.
There likely won’t be — God-willing — another devastating pandemic in the near future. For those of us that love Northwestern and its football team, though, “Good Clean American Fun” is a blissful drive down memory lane to an overwhelmingly positive part of an unprecedentedly dark time.