The essence of the current cultural discourse is that everything we watch is at least latently political. And we, the people, are hungry for political art. This monthly column, The Politics of American Movies, will explore everything from racially progressive Westerns and antifascist comedies to documentaries about the working class and popcorn flicks with subversive bite.
I keep coming back to a single image: an eyeball in the end zone, lifeless, dumb, disconnected, freshly flung from its socket and accordingly still wet, with a strip of red tissue trailing it like a bloody worm. There’s a strand of blond hair clinging to its sides, as if the eyeball had somehow tried to save itself by grabbing a fistful of mane on the way out. It’s gross but, admit it, kind of incredible. Nearby, a football player is screaming, “My eye!” Someone says, “I’m going to be sick.” An array of disgusted faces flashes by. A doctor holds the injured player’s bloody face, gently peeling back his lids to confirm that, yep, the eye is gone. It’s comedy. Someone gloves up, grabs the eye, shuffles it gently into a plastic baggie, and stores it in a cooler as the player is carried off the field. It’s a dire moment; it’s all over before it starts. “It looks like, uh, he had damage to his eye,” says a network commentator, distractedly. The game has already moved on.
Welcome to Any Given Sunday, from 1999. The movie was directed by Oliver Stone, who plays that network voice in the press box, adding color to what were already, in his hands, overwhelming proceedings. We’re late in the playoff game at the climax of the movie, and everyone seems to be falling apart — literally. The eye is just the start. There’s the hero quarterback, Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid), a veteran player with a ruptured disc that leaves his spine on the verge of caving in on itself like a house of cards, to say nothing of the memory lapses and tremors, nor of his constant need for painkillers. Meanwhile, one of Cap’s teammates, a middle linebacker named Luther “Shark” Lavay (Giants legend Lawrence Taylor), is a cortisone addict who previously suffered a broken neck that healed so poorly, and is so at risk of reinjury, that he had to sign a waiver before taking the field. Both of these men take bad hits in the playoff game, and both are worse off for it.
It’s brutal. Usually, at the end of a sports movie, deep into the big game, we’re meant to wonder whether the heroes will win: whether they’ll conquer the dream with victory and become the people they spent the entire movie longing to be. The sports movies we all love are less about sports than they are about the dreamers playing them. They’re aspirational, about people striving to be bigger and better than they are. Insofar as it’s a film in which the desire to win at football doubles as a measure of character, Any Given Sunday is your basic sports drama.
But it doesn’t always feel like one, for reasons that might explain why it’s always on my mind around Super Bowl weekend. As entertainment, Any Given Sunday is, by most accounts, bloated, confused, distractingly stylized, and an altogether wild ride. The actual football scenes are particularly fraught, even to someone of the MTV generation who, you’d think, would take easily to Stone’s rapid editing, mile-a-minute auteurist shenanigans, and overlapping music cues ranging from Moby to heart-pumping anthems by DMX. It’s a lot. The cast is stacked with names you don’t hear much anymore — Bill Bellamy, Elizabeth Berkley, Lela Rochon, even, strangely, Cameron Diaz — as well as the likes of Aaron Eckhart, LL Cool J, and, of course, Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx.
I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count — including in theaters, with a football-loving parent — and I’ve never been sure that I liked it, only that I couldn’t shake it. Any Given Sunday treats football like military combat, and openly so. Stone, who reportedly made his cast watch Saving Private Ryan before filming, has made that very comparison when describing the sport. “Football is mesmerizing because it’s a figurative war,” he told Premiere magazine in 1999. “You go in one direction till you get there, but you get there as a team, not as an individual.”
Yes, that and more. Sports heroes are national heroes. They are our gladiators — in Any Given Sunday they’re casually referred to as such. The takeaway from each game, meanwhile, isn’t a coherent, suspenseful succession of plays that add up to a clear winner and loser, but rather a jumble of sensations: bodies crunching and getting thrown skyward in slow motion, through blurred vision, as these gridiron warriors tumble, chaotically, across the football field. I walk away from the movie with a feel for what it means, in a literal sense, to have your head in the game, getting shaken up and knocked around so much you’re liable to wind up with a snow globe blizzard for a brain.
By the time of the big game in Any Given Sunday, the question at the heart of most sports movies no longer really matters. We’re not wondering whether this team full of broken men will win the game. We’re wondering whether they will survive it. Almost two decades after its release, this theme, and not the movie’s many excesses and failures, is what makes it worth remembering.
“The players have long been my heroes,” Stone told Premiere magazine in 1999. “I see them in the same way as the men I’ve made other movies about: Ron Kovic, Jim Garrison, Richard Nixon. They were people who went into the public arena and accomplished something, but paid a heavy price.” That price, for Stone, includes what happens when a player’s body no longer holds up. That’s when athletes get “thrown away like old cars or washing machines,” says Stone.
Who throws those bodies away, and why, and how, and what that means for the players themselves — their egos, their health — are all questions Stone posits answers to, all at once, in Any Given Sunday. You have to admire the grand nature of his vision. This is not a “stick to sports” approach to football, but rather one that sees all its thorny issues, from the racial disparities in recruiting to the shady medical and political practices that keep business booming, as essential to the story. There is room for everything: coaching disputes, bitchy social hierarchies among players’ wives, medical ethics debates, and on and on. It feels like too many movies at once because, well, it is. Inspirations and sources include the work of Richard Weiner (Joe Montana’s Art and Magic of Quarterbacking: The Secrets of the Game From One of the All-Time Best); a script called On Any Given Sunday by John Logan, drawn from former defensive end Pat Tomay’s novel of the same name; another script by Daniel Pyne called Playing Hurt (guess what it’s about); and remnants of an unmade film project based on Robert Huzienga’s You’re Okay, It’s Just a Bruise, a tell-all written from the perspective of a former NFL physician.
The plot of the resulting movie is accordingly Altmanesque, knotty and convoluted with a bustling cast. It helps to find the common thread: Football is a business, and in business, everyone pursues only their self-interests — or haven’t you seen Wall Street? Same movie, in some ways. Each is the story of a young upstart who gets a big chance, takes a bigger bite than he can chew, and gets humbled. Here, that upstart is “Steamin’” Willie Beamen (Foxx), an untested benchwarmer who becomes the starting quarterback at the beginning of the film after Cap Rooney and his backup are both badly injured. Beamen is young, black, and, when he finally gets the hang of things, a force to be reckoned with on the playing field. He also flies in the face of tradition, ignoring the plays of Coach D’Amato (Pacino), blowing off the concerns of the veteran players, and upstaging the still-recovering Rooney as the public face of the team. All of this happens as the team’s owner, Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), cooks up plans to replace D’Amato (her uncle, incidentally) with a younger coach in the wake of a string of losses. D’Amato, meanwhile, is a lonely older man who’s only growing older and lonelier. He used to run a tight ship; now, that ship is sinking under the weight of all the drug abuse, ego, and low morale.
There’s a traditional sports narrative buried somewhere in Any Given Sunday, a simple, well-told chronicle of a team in transition, caught between the old guard and the new as represented by Rooney and Beamen. It’s the stalwart all-American buoyed by legacy and loyalty versus the fresh-mouthed celebrity upstart, a kid who’s got his eyes fixed permanently on the future when everyone else, anchored by tradition, is busy digging their heels in the heroic past. This is the part of the movie that makes the clearest emotional sense; the arc is familiar. There’s conflict, conflict, conflict, the team falling apart all the while, and then, come time for the playoffs, there’s a big speech from coach: Al Pacino’s rhapsodic, Sunday-sermon-pure “Inch by Inch” monologue, delivered to a locker-room-wide amen corner. It’s an unabashedly heaping platter of locker-room cheese, and it’s all the more beautiful for it, a speech about team unity threaded through with the image of the “inch”: that immeasurable margin separating victors from everyone else. The inch, Coach D’Amato says, is what they’re fighting for.
It’s a sign of how broad and unfocused the movie is that if you isolate this one speech and play it completely out of context — as plenty of people have — you’d have no way of accurately predicting what the hell else is going on. This four-minute speech is the emotional peak of the only part of Any Given Sunday that totally satisfies — which also happens to be the part of the movie I think about the least. What I mostly think about, I have to admit, is the eyeball. The violence. The sounds these bodies make when slamming into one another. The winces of pain from onlookers in the crowd and on the sidelines. The screams. That’s the stuff that can’t be capped off with a great speech, though the life-or-death overtones of the “Inch by Inch” speech are kind of ironic in that context. “In any fight,” D’Amato says, “it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s gonna win that inch.” Leave it to Stone to take that literally.
By the time of Any Given Sunday, Stone’s most respected movie was still probably his Best Picture winner Platoon. That movie, an account of Vietnam that was true to Stone’s own experience in the war, moved and surprised people by stripping war heroes of their heroism, making them small, vulnerable, and irrevocably flawed. In some ways, Any Given Sunday is an even more interesting war movie, despite being a much lesser film overall. Platoon is forthright in its sympathy for the soldiers, in its belief in those men even as it has no sympathy for the war itself. The “bad guys” among the troops aren’t bad guys, really; they’re spiritually mixed-up men, lost boys, just trying to survive. Maybe because of its broader view of the corrosive nature of football as an institution, Any Given Sunday makes the line between good and bad all the more blurry. Even the team doctor, played by James Woods, who’s willing to lie to the players about the damage being done to their bodies if it means they can still play, has what he posits as honest intentions: Whenever someone makes a case for benching an injured player, he’s quick to point out that these are people with families to take care of. Coach D’Amato, despite being an unequivocally good guy, openly leads his dying and broken-down men into danger, knowing they likely cannot handle it. For glory? Maybe. But just as much because he wants these men to feel like men.
Tensions like these make Any Given Sunday worth watching, still, even as it’s way too much. This movie is what comes to mind for me every time a real-life football player takes a bad hit and lingers, just a little longer than normal, on the ground. I immediately think back to the moments of Cap Rooney looking out at the world through the fog of his injuries. I think about the magnificent Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns who plays assistant coach Montezuma Monroe, as he turns to a player and says: “You ever seen an old punch-drunk boxer, stumbling around, drooling, with no memory of what he’s done in his life? Is that the life you want for yourself?” Any Given Sunday is unabashedly about the business and politics of football and the compromises therein. But above all, it’s about choices like this. Is this the life you want for yourself? Every major character in the film confronts that question by the end. And because football is an institution, and not merely a game, the consequences of these choices are unilaterally bigger than the people making them.
That’s politics. It’s funny how much more prescient the movie seems to grow over time. On the 15th anniversary of its release a few years ago, writers were quick to note that the repeated concussions and other dire injuries made for an eerie rewatch amid so many public-health debates on that subject raging online, on sports networks, and in living rooms across the country. And then there’s all the awkward but meaningful talk about race. In 1999, watching Willie Beamen rail against the systemic racial barriers to the NFL he’d faced as a young prospect while, behind him, Ben-Hur — in essence, the story of a slave — blares on an over-large television screen, felt goofy. Stone has never shied away from stuffing mangled fistfuls of bullish political provocation into his movies, but Jesus. Today that scene and the blunt message it tried to cudgel into our brains remains incredibly inelegant. But months of black players kneeling on football fields, provoked by fraught public conversations about a long history of racial injustice that leads all the way back to slavery, have tempered the scene’s initial annoying nature. The message was always onto something; It was the bluntness of the instrument that needed a little time to make sense.
And now it does. Any Given Sunday will not go down as Stone’s best movie, nor even, for most people, as one of the great football movies. It’s a flawed piece of work, like its maker; luckily, it doesn’t have to be good to be important. The movie is a singular testament to where football is in our culture, what it means, and what it costs. There really isn’t another movie like it — one that makes me cringe and shift in my seat with discomfort even as I’m cheering these players on. Everyone ostensibly survives in the end. But do they really? The movie makes them no such promise. The team moves on, the players heal, but the game — big, brutal, and full of compromise — remains the same.