It isn’t just Any Given Sunday’s prescience that makes it special
Over the past few years, the undeniable ugliness at the core of the NFL has been more and more difficult for even casual fans of football to ignore. The widening chasm between the sport itself and the towering institution that its governing body has become is one of the most distressing spectacles in modern popular culture. The persistent reminders in the news cycle that behind one of America’s favorite pastimes lurks a smorgasbord of problematic complexity means this is a great time to revisit Oliver Stone’s 1999 film Any Given Sunday, arguably the last great film he’s likely to make.
Stone, the heady provocateur, was ahead of his time with this epic depiction of football as the ultimate metaphor for the thorny entanglements of late capitalism. In typical Stone fashion, the source material is a proto-mystical hodgepodge of conflicting narratives. Loosely adapted from the Pat Toomey novel On Any Given Sunday, the film’s final screenplay also incorporates elements from three other scripts and a former NFL doctor’s memoir, all stitched together like a patchwork quilt. While its origins are knotty, the film’s narrative is pretty straightforward, even if the runtime is a little bloated.
The film follows the trials and tribulations surrounding the Miami Sharks, a once great football team playing in the Associated Football Franchises of America (the fictional AFFA standing in for the NFL, since the league infamously refused to support the film). Beleaguered coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) butts heads with new owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) over the direction of the franchise after the injury of quarterback Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid) thrusts third-stringer Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) into the spotlight. The team’s journey to the playoffs and their transformation through crisis forms a structure to keep the film on track, but whether or not they win a championship is an afterthought. It’s just a framework for Stone to probe the field the way he once did the grassy knoll. The result is a kaleidoscopic look at the business of football that just so happens to also be a sports film. Even if it was just your average football movie, Salvatore Totino’s cinematography and Stone’s fevered recreations of actual gameplay would be more than enough to cement it as a thrilling, worthy entry into the sports film pantheon. But it’s the myriad tangents and excursions from the game that set it apart.
James Woods’ sleazy performance as team physician Dr. Harvey Mandrake and the questionable decisions he makes about linebacker Luther Lavay’s (Lawrence Taylor) concussion issues seem even more fucked up in today’s climate. Taylor, a real-life Pro Football Hall of Famer, brings a heaping helping of authenticity to the role of Lavay. Watching this man force himself to play in games that could immediately end his life, all in an effort to hit his contracted stats goal for a large enough bonus so he can retire, is heartbreaking. But it’s Jamie Foxx’s “Steamin’” Beamen who steals the show.
The role is Foxx’s first presage of just how good he would be in future hits like Ray, Collateral and Django Unchained, with his raw magnetism breathing life into this iconoclastic player whose outspoken nature, on and off the field, begins to overshadow his sheer talent. The same way Lavay is expected to set aside his own health to hit his contract goals, Beamen’s job is to follow D’Amato’s plays and keep his mouth shut in interviews. Revisiting the film today, it’s hard not to think about Richard Sherman, Colin Kaepernick and other black men who wouldn’t let their sport preclude them from voicing their opinions.
It isn’t just Any Given Sunday’s prescience that makes it special, but the way Stone tempers his persistent critiques of football culture with the mythical reinforcement of why the game means what it does to so many people. Stone’s always had a gift for tearing apart what offends him about the country he calls home while simultaneously exalting that which he still holds dear, so this film perfectly encapsulates both sides of that dual coin.
Stone knows an audience is not going to sit through two-and-a-half hours of indicting the NFL for turning a sport into a corrupt paean to capitalist excess without also sending them home happy with a third act that hits all the right dramatic beats a less-probing film would be certain to build toward. This one of America’s most controversial, divisive filmmakers tackling one of its most enduring institutions, pulling few punches and capturing the best and worst of life for the pigskin set. Any Given Sunday is more than just an indulgent delivery system for Pacino’s epic “inches” speech, and it’s high time we acknowledge it as such.