Anyone who has spent a late November afternoon in Ann Arbor or Columbus knows “The Game” is an event best experienced in three dimensions. Television does it no justice.

HBO’s new sports documentary, “Michigan vs. Ohio State: The Rivalry,” which airs tonight at 10:30 p.m., doesn’t recreate the madness you’ll see in the Big House this Saturday, but it thoroughly portrays the cultural phenomenon that has sprung from The Game.

In 60 minutes, “The Rivalry” captures the underlying differences that make Michigan vs. Ohio State so much more than a football game. As Michigan students it’s not hard to recognize the fanaticism that goes into the rivalry, but the documentary makes it accessible even to those who haven’t been inside the Big House.

“The Rivalry” shows that the Michigan-OSU game acts as proxy for a hatred that extends well beyond the football field. Despite only being divided by an arbitrary line drawn by a surveyor in the 19th century, Ohioans and Michiganders are different, and “The Rivalry” doesn’t shy away from that fact.

The core of the documentary is the delineation of the cultural, social and economic differences between Michigan fans and Ohio State fans. HBO is right to make this the centerpiece. The Wolverine faithful will be happy to see themselves cast as the intellectual elite of the Midwest, while their neighbors to the South are shown, quite frankly, as part of a less-educated set.

The film’s weakness is in its portrayal of the most important part of the rivalry, the 10 Year War. The matchups between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler are the stuff of legend, and rightly so. While “The Rivalry” has humorous, even hilarious, footage of each coach at his happiest and most angry, depending on each year’s outcome, the discussion doesn’t translate well into the cultural differences the documentary tries to stress throughout.

“The Rivalry” also features Schembechler’s final filmed interview before his death. There are no outstanding insights into his life or the rivalry as a result, but the knowledge that it was his filmed during his final trip to Michigan Stadium is poignant enough. The documentary doesn’t overdo the melancholy, but it comes close.

Some will argue the documentary slants in favor of Ohio State – there is much more footage of Ohio Stadium than the Big House, more time with Jim Tressel than Lloyd Carr – but this is a result more of circumstance than bias. The documentary was filmed around last year’s epic match-up featuring the two undefeated teams, and while it still hurts to see those scarlet-painted hooligans tearing up the field nearly one year ago today, it’s no secret Ohio State won the game. To the victor go the spoils, at least for this hour.

But things would have been different had Michigan won last year’s game. No doubt, Michigan fans would have been pleased to see endless shots of crying Buckeyes had the game turned out the other way.

“The Rivalry” is another in a long line of well-produced sports documentaries from HBO. On film, you can’t capture the magic of The Game, but HBO proves you can reproduce the power of culture in the greatest rivalry in sports. After you watch, Saturday won’t come fast enough.

Michigan vs. Ohio State: The Rivalry

4 out of 5 stars

Tonight at 10:30 p.m.


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