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Any Given Sunday

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, Ann-Margret, James Woods, Lela Rochon, Lauren Holly

(Warner Brothers; 1999)

Between the Lines

Whatever you think about Oliver Stone as a director, you can’t deny his firm grasp on this country’s interests. From Vietnam to JFK to serial killers, Stone’s pictures have always depicted major subjects of national fascination. With his latest release, Any Given Sunday, Stone looks to go his previous films one better by focusing on the most popular sport in America. Stone knows that if there is anything that draws a bigger Nielsen rating than a 20/20 exclusive interview with the latest serial killer, it’s ABC’s Monday Night Football. Football, like many professional sports, is also the focus of several compelling national debates on such varied topics as race relations, the social status awarded its athletes, and a host of economic concerns. The popularity and potential controversy of the subject seems tailor-made for a Stone project. If you’re expecting the director’s trademark hard-hitting, investigative approach, however, this film will disappoint.

Any Given Sunday begins by invoking the patron saint of football, the late Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi. A picture of the coach accompanies a quote of his comparing the football field to the field of battle. To underscore this point, Stone plunges his audience headfirst into the chaos of the game in the film’s first scene. Much like the World War II saga Saving Private Ryan, Stone’s film employs first-person, hand-held camera angles to make the horror of conflict immediate. The first play of scrimmage sees veteran quarterback Jack “Cap” Rooney (played by Dennis Quaid) suffering a horrific sack that has him writhing in agony beneath a team of doctors. This could be Omaha Beach on D-Day, but the scene is typical of modern professional football.

Specifically, Rooney is the quarterback for the Miami Sharks, a struggling professional football team coached by the legendary Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino). Pacino is perfectly cast as the team’s fire-breathing leader who, despite his successful history, faces the toughest challenge of his career in motivating the ego-driven players under his command. The film focuses in large part on the trials and tribulations of Rooney’s young replacement, “Steamin’” Willie Beamen. Played with surprising dramatic range by the comedian Jamie Foxx, Beaman is {an unknown} quarterback whose initial success pushes the Sharks into the playoffs but whose egomaniacal behavior threatens to tear the team apart. D’Amato’s reverence for the storied football icons of yesteryear conflicts directly with Beaman’s steadfast refusal to respect what he sees as ancient history.

To complicate this issue, the coach is pressured to maintain the team’s winning ways by the Sharks’ owner/general manager Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), the daughter of long-time owner Art Pagniacci. She’s burdened by her late father’s legacy of success in both the business and the sports world. (Her alcoholic mother, played flawlessly by Ann-Margaret, has long-since learned to numb herself to similar pressures.) As a result, Christina finds herself bending league rules, risking the health of her players, and strong-arming mayors in order to secure wins and secure the team’s financial bottom line. If the story sounds contrived, it is. Nothing about the actual plot of the film is particularly noteworthy. Despite the trite story, Any Given Sunday does attempt to take on some of the darker aspects of professional football. For instance, the physical price paid by the players is documented in full. Stone takes the viewer into the locker room where I.V. drips and cortisone shots are administered with regularity. During the making of the film, L.L. Cool J. (Sharks running back Julian Washington) suffered a separated shoulder, an injury that has caused him to remark more than once that the athletes are actually paid too little for the abuse they suffer.

This might be a stretch but the brutality of the sport cannot be denied. For Stone, the football field is a modern day Coliseum, filled with gladiators who do battle for our general entertainment. In a scene where Coach D’Amato and Willie Beamen debate the merits of the game over dinner, Ben Hur (the one starring Charleton Heston) plays on the coach’s big screen tv. And who should round out the ensemble cast as the league commissioner? None other that the iconic gladiator himself, Heston. During this talk, Willie brings up an important point concerning the league’s 70 percent majority of black players, compared to a minority of black coaches and the outright lack of any black owners. When Stone cuts from Willie to a scene where Ben Hur is rowing in a slave galley, the point is driven home.

Unfortunately, this single scene is as deep as the film gets in examining the politics and social realties of the game. Despite his history of films that adopt anti-establishment stances (Natural Born Killers, JFK), Stone’s latest work cannot resist the urge to celebrate football, social warts and all. The unmitigated attraction lies in the key to football’s unparalleled popularity. Football is a game of numbers, of statistics and scores that exist in black and white. Results are measured in wins or losses. There is no room for interpretation or argument. Despite the gray areas that shroud the social aspects of the game, Stone chooses to concentrate on the strictly defined dichotomies of the game’s confines: offense and defense, win and lose, life and death.

Despite its shortcomings, Any Given Sunday is enjoyable for any fan of the game of football. Aside from the stunning visuals, Stone invites the viewer to play spot-the-star by casting such legendary players as Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, and Lawrence Taylor and such current stars as Ricky Watters and J.J. Stokes. But for those interested in football as more than a game, as a cultural event, Stone’s film falls short of any meaningful exploration. By focusing its attention mainly on the field of play, between the white lines of football as a game unto itself and refusing to cross the game’s social boundaries, Any Given Sunday runs more like a two and a half hour NFL commercial instead of a serious film.

Tobias Peterson served as PopMatters' Sport Editors and columnist (From the Cheap Seats). He holds an MA in English Literature (with a concentration in Cultural Studies) from George Mason University, where he studied representations of race in professional basketball.

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