Recently at lunch, I was watching ESPN with the sound off at a local bar. For 20 minutes, the anchors talked about child abuse, spousal abuse, whether or not Roger Goddell should step down. There wasn't a score on the screen the entire time, and not a single game talked about. Regardless of the importance of the issues surrounding football, there is no small part of me that wishes football talk could be about the game. No issues, no important business. Not about money or politics or anything but moving the ball.
That's because, when it comes to football, I'm mostly interested in the surface. 15 years ago, Oliver Stone made Any Given Sunday, a football movie all about everything underneath the surface, everything that happens on or off the field - in the medical offices, the corporates offices, the after-game parties and the training grounds. Revisiting the movie so many years later, it is almost eerie how much it presages the modern football era - where the game exists just to support the corporate league, rather than the other way around.
Any Given Sunday is about a team in the fictional AFFA league, the Miami Sharks, whose QB and coach are not looking so hot. Dennis Quaid (the QB) gets injured mid-game, so Al Pacino (the coach) ends up playing third-stringer Jamie Foxx. After some initial nerves (including puking right on the field, which becomes a ritual for the player) Foxx doesn't secure the win, but closes the game respectably, and looks like he might have some potential. The more he plays, the more he finds his own rhythm - which is nothing like Coach Pacino's.
Their conflict becomes one of the central metaphors for the way the game of football is changing. Pacino's got a playbook full of meticulously crafted strategies; Foxx has speed, brashness, and not just a willingness, but a need to think on his feet, and play his own way. He's charismatic, quickly becomes popular, and is an obvious money-maker.
The money aspect of the game is as important in Any Given Sunday as is what happens on the field. Cameron Diaz plays the team owner, a position she inherited from her father. What she did not inherit was her father's apparent love of the game or tradition, and less so his complete devotion to Al Pacino. She gives him what is essentially an ultimatum: find a way to replace Quaid's QB with Foxx, or there wouldn't be a place for either of the old-timers on the team next season.
All levels and aspects of conflict in the modern game are at least touched upon, if not explored to their full depths: most obviously tradition versus progress. But there's also the racial differences: Foxx is black, Pacino and Quaid are white. Matthew Modine's conscientious doctor is deeply contrasted with the team's medical lead, James Woods, and his sleazy "inject them with anything to keep them going" style. The world of football is rich with material, which makes for a long, long movie... and even so, many storylines are picked up then glossed over or not paid off at all. Dennis Quaid disappears for what feels like more than half the movie. Al Pacino's struggle to get Foxx to understand and respect football as a team sport, not a place for personal glory, is a movie all unto itself, but the manic scope of the film makes even aspects of their characters feel short-changed. None of which if the fault of the performers: everyone performs admirably. From the big name actors to the real-life football players that pepper the cast, there is a lived-in quality to the performances that often makes me wish the film's relentless pace could be ratcheted down so the characters could emerge more completely.
Any Given Sunday is ultimately a sports movie. It ends with a big game, and with many of the same dramatic questions and beats we see in any sports movie: is the player going out for himself, or the team? Is the linebacker going to go too far, even after the doctor said one bad hit could kill him? And, most important of all, does the team win?
Al Pacino even has a justly famous team-rallying speech before the big game, one that has apparently been adopted by real-life coaches at all levels. It's about the importance of sacrifice and teamwork. It's good. It's sports movie stuff.
None of which is bad, and despite being filled with sports movie stuff, it is also an Oliver Stone movie, which means excess even in its calm moments, and outright psychedelia when the action is frantic. Melding his big style with the most excessive American sport yields some creative film sequences. Montages, weirdly framed shots, often iffy focus, and music video-style editing (and in one case, an actual music video) fill the film. In one of the centerpiece scenes, where Foxx and Pacino lay down their opposing philosophies, the argument is intercut with scenes from the chariot races in Ben Hur. Oliver Stone may be many things, subtle isn't one of them.
This untraditional style of editing and shooting can make the action sequences difficult to follow. Any Given Sunday is filled with football action, but it is filmed in what must have been a conscious rejection of the way games are shot for television. The action is right down on the field, slow, occasionally silent shots before the play dissolves into quick cuts, bodies slamming into each other. Impressive filming, if not totally coherent.
One thing about Any Given Sunday, it's not boring. It sure isn't focused. Some of the important conflicts and characters do not have distinct enough arcs or payoffs (Aaron Eckhart is a direct rival of Al Pacino's, groomed to be his successor, and while I know he has some dialogue I can't remember a single scene where he actually did anything). Stone's scenes tend to be impressionistic rather than more traditionally structured, and sometimes you wish he could just shoot two people talking without having to do anything fancy.
But it's never boring.
Extras: The 15th Anniversary Blu-ray carries over a lot of extras over from previous releases, including a number of deleted scenes, some music videos related to the film, and a pair of feature length commentaries, one by Oliver Stone and one by Jamie Foxx. Stone's is particularly interesting for the details on how remarkably unhelpful the NFL was in the making of the film. There is a new 30 minute documentary on the disc, Anything Can Happen, which focuses directly on how accurately the film depicts the real world of professional football. A number of ex-players are interviewed, and give their insights on the game, and in particular how hard it can be on a player to decide whether or not he can keep pursuing his dreams in the face of injury and age. The 15th Anniversary Blu-ray release also contains the theatrical cut of the film on a DVD.