PLAY OR BE PLAYED
Oliver Stone is often regarded as something of an enfant terrible in filmmaking. He’s driven, talented, opinionated and confrontational. He wants to say things about what’s happening in the world. Indeed, this is sort of the right kind of temperament you want from an artist. Someone who wants to engage, challenge, comment and discuss various topics important to him or herself within society at large. He regularly takes swings at war (Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon), politics (JFK, Nixon, W.), the media (Talk Radio, The Doors, Natural Born Killers) and corporate America (Wall Street). In 1999, he selected a new subject for his own brand of scrutiny and dissection – professional sports.
Tony D’Amato(Al Pacino) is the head coach of the Miami Sharks, and is driven by the legacy of the game. Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) is the owner, and is driven by profit. The team’s in a bad way when, after a four-game losing streak, the star quarterback Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid) gets injured, bringing in third stringer Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), a relative rookie whose ego starts to become a problem in his new role. It falls to D’Amato to try to keep the team from imploding.
If there is a regular concern and focus that Oliver Stone returns to time and again throughout his film choices, it’s the corruptive and corrosive influence that these various topics have on the individuals involved. With Any Given Sunday, Stone considers the world of American football and the effect it has on the various people involved, from the coaches to the owners to the players to the doctors to the families. What makes it especially interesting is that it takes in all of those topics I mentioned before and considers them in the context of this world. There’s the internal politics of the team’s management, with D’Amato and Pagniacci constantly butting heads over the best way to run things, with D’Amato having to argue with players and other coaches on how to run a simple play, with players arguing with each other over differing plays. There’s the business side of things, with Pagniacci trying to strong-arm the mayor into getting a new stadium and promising a bright future for the city, with Julian Washington (LL Cool J) trying to make big endorsement deals. There’s the influence of the media on how things are run, with John C. McGinley’s obnoxious sports reporter Jack Rose shining a light on every bad call and flaw in the team’s play and management, forcing everyone to affect a media-friendly persona for the sake of the money and politics side of things. And as for the fourth one, well, they do say that sport is preparation for war. In fact, the film opens with a quote from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi: “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour - his greatest fulfilment to all he holds dear - is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.” These are more like the words of a general, not a sports coach.
Well, such is this world that they are one and the same. Several times throughout the film, Stone compares the players on these teams, both directly and by implication, to gladiators, the warriors of old, pitching battle against one another for glory and honour and the entertainment of the baying crowds. In this context, the need for a strong leader is great, someone who can command such respect that their followers will literally risk life and limb for their leader. People seem to be aware of this need in the film, with everyone demanding that someone step up, take charge, be a man. Pagniacci wants D’Amato to show himself as a leader, but brings in someone to hang over him and question his plays and decisions; D’Amato needs a leader on the field, but his go-to guy, Rooney, is on the way out and his replacement, Beamen, may have the playing skills, but he’s too egocentric to learn how to lead. This is a complicated world, with complex relationships, and not just with those on the team. Everyone has an influence on how things could go. There’s even a minor nod towards Macbeth when Rooney confesses to his wife that he wants to step back, but she harangues him into pushing further, reaching higher. Granted, it’s not exactly done with the same great delicacy or punch, but it’s there.
The script is a wide-spreading creature, acknowledging the various aspects at play in each character, with motivations and influences hanging over their heads, pushing them in on direction or another. It really has tried to include everyone in its meditation on the nature of where the drive and desire to win comes from in each character. It does a fine job in defining each role well, so you never really get anyone confused with anyone else, which is a quite a feat when several of them wear the same uniform. It’s also done a rather good job in being able to sum up a few of these characters with a choice phrase, something that acts as their personal motivational mantra. Pagniacci - “Whatever it takes.” D’Amato - “On any given Sunday you’re gonna win or you’re gonna lose. The point is - can you win or lose like a man?” Beamen himself carries a line that is something of a paraphrase of another sporting legend (albeit one from golf), Walter Hagen - “No one remembers who came in second.” Strong words for people that need to be able to motivate quick and hard. It’s not something lost in the film.
Oliver Stone’s direction is, as those of you familiar with his work will know, about as subtle as a charging tackle. There is some subtlety to the writing, but Stone wants to really drive home his point. He’s not one to leave an ambiguous impression. This is achieved often by Stone and his team of four editors, Stuart Levy, Thomas J. Nordberg, Keith Salmon and Stuart Waks. When Pagniacci are arguing over the best way to run the team and make the rights player calls, footage of the team practicing are occasionally ghosted over them, punctuated their clash of words with the clash of bodies. Like I said, it’s not exactly subtle, but it goes beyond simple metaphor. It’s also to drive home the point that what these two are arguing about go beyond a difference of opinion. What these two are talking about has very real and physical repercussions on the team, that D’Amato wants to protect, but Pagniacci just wants to bring in ticket money and good media attention. The comparison between the old times of the Coliseum and the new times on the Gridiron are also nicely played to further D’Amato’s building sense falling out of step with the game he loves, that it long ago moved on without him. His regular run-ins with Beamen are scattered with references to the big age gap between the two, though it sometimes runs a little clichéd (they actually briefly discuss their differing music tastes: Beamen likes rap; D’Amato likes jazz). Stone’s heavy use of metaphor is strewn throughout the whole piece, with clouds and weather being a regular signifier of trouble, either on the horizon or clearing. Again, it’s not subtle, but neither is Stone.
The casting is somewhat interesting, though it’s amazing looking at it now (hell, back then, too) just how many very well known people are in it. Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, James Woods, Jamie Foxx, LL Cool J, Matthew Modine, Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor, Bill Bellamy, Lauren Holly, Ann-Margret, Aaron Eckhart, Elizabeth Berkley, John C. McGinley… Christ, that’s a cast. And some of it is great. Jamie Foxx is on fine form, as is Dennis Quaid, LL Cool J, Jim Brown and James Woods. Hell, even Lawrence Taylor, a former NFL star himself, does some excellent work here. There’s even a brief cameo from Charlton Heston, another nod to gladiators, since we see clips from Ben-Hur, in which Heston starred.
Cameron Diaz is okay, but not exactly great as Pagniacci. She’s always had much better luck with roles of a more comedic nature, since she is a gifted comedienne. The lack of assurance occasionally even works for her, since Pagniacci is someone that you feel like shouldn’t really be running this team, so it is awkward fit to the character. However, most of the time, she comes across as genuinely struggling with some moments. Then, there’s Al Pacino. Pacino is a giant in the film world, we know this. That said, I will be honest and say that his D’Amato is pretty good, but hardly the classic work we know he’s capable of (he’s way better in …And Justice For All, as mentioned not long ago). It’s certainly not that he’s bad, because he’s not. He’s just occasionally outshone by others. Again, this rather fits with the idea that he’s a coach struggling to maintain his stance as the leader of this pack, but it just feels like a resurgence of Classic Pacino at the end would have given more kick than is there. Not to mention that, in an Oliver Stone movie, rarely is anyone a bigger star than Oliver Stone.
So, Any Given Sunday is richly conceived, written and directed with the usual gusto of metaphorical swings from Stone, and certainly holds performances of a good enough standard to be convincing for the most part… then why do I feel I little cold about the whole thing? I’m still not sure where to pin this feeling down. It could be that I have no interest in the game itself, and therefore have less of a chance to connect to the material being discussed, simply because I don’t know what they’re talking about sometimes. However, that’s a bit of a cop out, since I should be able to lose myself in the rather effective human drama of it all. Honestly, I think it has to do with the games themselves. Though well-shot and visceral enough, there’s a distance to it somehow. The world in which these games play out seems to so small, so remote, so trivial. If we’re to believe that so much rides on these games and this world, I need to feel the weight of these games. It could all stem from the fact that we see relatively few shots of the crowds, or that there’s little in the way of establishing a tense and passionate atmosphere at the games. It just so rarely feels like they’re playing in big expensive stadiums. It feels smaller, like these are just college games, instead of the big national leagues.
I don’t know, perhaps you’ll feel different.
Any Given Sunday is a fine film, with obvious effort put into the conception of the project and consideration given to the sprawling nature of the game. I didn’t quite get the real rush of what I think they tried to convey, but it certainly still got some punch as an intriguing human drama in a high-pressure world of sports.