"Holy mackerel that is football!"
Oliver Stone’s movies usually seem more complicated than they are. Partly this comes from his evolving style, from the curiously romantic realism of Platoon, to the assaultive ding-battiness of Natural Born Killers, to the debased lunacy of U-Turn. But mostly it comes from his obsession with a single theme: brutality. Or more precisely, how brutality becomes morality.
This theme shows up in many forms in Stone’s work, ranging from the U.S. government’s many historical deceits, to patriarchy’s horrors disguised as genetic fate, to the madness of media and commercial culture. What seems to allow his repeated return to this theme is the bizarre self-image he’s constructed over the years. The man has nerve and passion, and above all, a sense of mission (it’s not whether he came to believe his own superlative press surrounding Platoon, or if he came to Hollywood equipped with his legendary arrogance). In any event, Stone is a man committed: he finds his target the brutality of war, politics, media and slams it to the ground. Repeatedly.
Such slamming is most evident in the mainstream movies. In Scarface (written by Stone and directed by Brian DePalma), Horatio-Alger-esque drug dealer Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is violent for a living, but goes most wrong when he sells out his friends and family for kingpin status. Platoon‘s protagonist/Stone-stand-in Chris (Charlie Sheen), learns that in the face of war, intra-platoon loyalty constitutes its own morality. Born on the Fourth of July‘s paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) ends up joining the Democratic Party, seeking a moral end to the relentless brutality he faces at war and at home. But it’s as if the film can’t quite represent the happy ending it imagines: when Kovic goes to give his much-heralded Convention speech, the screen literally fades to white (underlining that what he has to say will necessarily undo everything else the movie has hammered home about the evils of politics).
It’s Stone’s overtly maniacal movies the ones that people tend to dislike and disparage that are the most provocative concerning this relationship between violence and morality. In NBK, Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are the most despicable of characters, mass murderers on a spree, exalted by ratings-hungry media. In a word, they are the Ur-Team Players, delivering to expectations, signing autographs, spinning their own stories with a grim expertise. They are the consummate rockstar-monsters, vivaciously and stunningly brutal. And when they come out on top, they are the Team Personified, they serve the tabloids, the fans, and the detractors all at the same time. U-Turn is the filmmaker’s most disturbing articulation of the logical ends of U.S. culture’s worship of individualism and violence (despite and because of the screwy boy-bonding at the violent climax). Nick Nolte, Jennifer Lopez, and the astounding Sean Penn (who has since described Stone as a farm animal) tussle over money, power, and sex, until they’re left with only raw meanness.
An early movie, Salvador, delivers loony-tunes journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods at his gonzo best) behaving like the biggest speed-freak-asshole you could ever imagine, the ugly American redux, plainly not understanding what’s going on around him (thinking he can save a Salvadoran woman just because he loves her). Boyle is initially so quick and relentless in his raging against U.S. imperialism, commercialism, and me-ism, that you feel betrayed when he turns around at film’s end to embrace national pride and patriotism. When you think about it, though, Boyle’s rant is one of the clearest manifestations of Stone’s love-hate relationship with that All-American desire to be the best team player. Boyle is looking for that moment of grace, that instant when your life makes sense and you feel part of something bigger than yourself. In Stone’s ornery humanism, you achieve this pseudo-redemption when you play for the right team.
So here he’s arrived, finally, at his definitive team movie. Any Given Sunday starts out looking like it’s going to critique the hell out of that berserker activity known to most folks as football. It opens with a horrific battle scene (Platoon brought home, and, by the way, and didn’t Peter Davis’s 1975 documentary Hearts and Minds already expose this nasty connection?). Against a backdrop of straining cheerleaders, fuzzy mascots, and fans in grotesque body-paint, the (fictionalized) Miami Sharks wear all-black uniforms (how metaphorical!) and crash headlong in crash into the Other Team. The camera zigzags, the cuts come fast and hard, the reaction shots show angry coaches (Al Pacino as Miami headguy Tony D’Amato, Jim Brown as defensive coordinator Montezuma Monroe) and anxious wives (the white ones in one section, the black ones in another). Two quarterbacks go down in quick succession, including veteran Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid). Desperate, Tony sends in the third man, Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), who promptly pukes on the field.
Willie’s vomiting becomes the film’s running joke, implying the kid’s intense desire to do well. The drama seems to be this: is this desire a matter of self-interest or… team-interest? And it’s in this tension that the violence-morality dynamic is played out.
Structured as a series of dysfunctional father-son relationships (technically, Cameron Diaz is the daughter of a team owner who has inherited her dead dad’s legacy, but she functions as a son here), Any Given Sunday seems distracted by its own excesses, which are less stylistic (the cinematographer is a first-timer, Salvatore Totino, the four editors include one Stone-veteran, Thomas Nordberg, and three FNGs) than narrative. Covering all kinds of cultural ground familial tensions, vulgar consumerism, racism, sexism, drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, medical ethics, and the general obscenity of media the movie gallops along like it has lots to say, but can never quite find the words to say it. Of course, everyone yells a lot, but the movie’s most interesting insights don’t come through in the overwrought dialogue.
The movie is hoisted on something of a petard, wanting simultaneously to excoriate and celebrate football. On the one hand, the movie calls out football for its corporate brutality (shades of Spike Lee’s He Got Game), on another, Any Given Sunday proclaims football a religious ritual, wherein fans are treated to heroic displays of talent and teamwork. It’s this team business that finally does the film in: it’s ridiculously happy ending is achieved when the most soulless mercenaries learn their hard lessons and do the right thing by the team.
Tony’s journey of self-discovery exacts costs from everyone around him: he does battle with his team’s owner and general manager Christina (Diaz), showboater Beamen, star running back Julian Washington (LL Cool J, stealing scenes again), dorky and ubiquitous reporter Jack (John C. McGinley, survivor of five Stone films), newbie high tech defensive coordinator Nick (Aaron Echkhart), and sleazy team doctor Harvey Mandrake (as in root?), played by Woods in relative slow-motion. Tony’s dilemma is not only that he’s old and tired (he doesn’t “get” the superstar mentality, the fact that Willie makes a rap video to sell sports bars), but also that he has regrets.
As you see by the pictures in his fancy home, he once had a wife and daughter that he “gave up” for the game. It’s worth noting that the sole character to call him out in a way that sticks is his old boss’s widow and new boss’s mom, Margaret (Ann-Margret), who spends most of her screentime being drunk and fiddling with her little white pooches. Still, in vino veritas and all: during a quiet moment, she tells Tony that he’s been a “monster,” and darn if that insight doesn’t come back to you, while you’re sinking into your seat during the 2 hours and 40 minutes that the movie pounds away.
Other than Margaret’s moment, however, the film does a standard Stonian job on its women. Christina needs to learn her proper place and to respect Tony’s experience. Tony finds comfort with a really nice, air headed hooker (Elizabeth Berkley), who has a lot of wigs and tells him a few times how good he is. But the major ball buster here is Cap’s wife (Lauren Holly). When she hauls off and belts him for even suggesting that he should quit the game, it’s one of those dark movie moments when a filmmaker’s inner workings seem laid out. Ouch.
The sensible woman in the mix seems to be Willie’s longtime girlfriend Vanessa (Lela Rochon), who leaves him just as soon as he gets too big-headed and starts pushing her around. True, she seems a little too ready take him back when he plays remorseful for a minute, but the film leaves hope that she might maintain her sanity and reject his spoiled-kid-acting ass. Willie occupies a difficult place in the film, for he’s right about the racism in the football business but so cocky that you never feel asked to believe him. In the film’s outrageous scene, Willie’s eating Coach’s jambalaya while the Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur plays on a huge tv screen: as the men debate the racism in the league point (lots of black RBs and defensive linemen, very few QBs and coaches, no owners, though how Tony imagines a counterpoint is actually unclear), you see Chuck Heston on the slave ship. Heroic or beaten down? You decide.
For all the backstage grumping and battling, the games are where the film locates its major action and metaphors. In the locker rooms, the players are iced and dosed with all kinds of speed and painkillers, at home they drink and smoke themselves into what seems a well-deserved oblivion. The point is, the money and the pain are too much. Willie’s bad-boyness emerges when he starts calling his own plays, flouting the play book and traditions (his play is so good, however, that it inspires a sports announcer played by Stone himself to proclaim, “Holy mackerel that is football!”). Washington, his eyes on his yardage record and the endorsements contracts that come with it, fights a lot in the locker room, at parties, on the sidelines with Willie. This repetition may be the film’s way of avoiding racism on the team per se, but it only underlines the fact that the black players are divided to be conquered. During one game, DMX’s “My Niggas” thunders on the soundtrack, seeming to comment on the simultaneous camaraderie and abusiveness of what you’re watching.
Any Given Sunday never does figure out what it wants to say. Instead, it retreats from any and all critiques of this awful business and does the great hurrah! For the Big Game, coach and all the players work as a team to claw their way out of the hell they’ve been in (after Tony’s rousing halftime speech advising same), and even mom and the wayward daughter bond with the poochies. The cheerleaders jump and split. Even the sports announcers cheer. By this time, you’re just feeling exhausted. Brutality is morality? Sure, sure. Just roll credits. Please.