“Put Me in the Movie, Coach!”
As the weather turns cool and crisp, all red-blooded Americans’ thoughts turn to the weekly adventures of our gridiron gladiators. In between Sunday afternoons, enjoy these cinematic takes on the game of football.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Burt Reynolds makes the most of his loosey-goosey screen persona as a former pro footballer stuck in prison, who is coerced by the corrupt warden to form an inmate team to play against the guards. Forty-seven minutes of this film are devoted to the actual game, and director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) brings strong pacing and verve to the action, leavened by a bit of social criticism about the twin brutalities of football and prison life. Poorly remade in 2005 with Adam Sandler sadly unable to fill Reynold’s cleats.
The saga of the dreamer underdog reaches its zenith in this pigskin melodrama about a young man who aspires to play for Notre Dame. The only problems for Rudy are that he’s not bright enough to get into an elite college, and he’s half the size of the other players on the team. But in the movies, all things are possible. Sean Astin’s earnest performance and the detailed direction of David Anspaugh (Hoosiers) overcome the predictable path of the story and the inevitable yet immensely satisfying conclusion.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Oliver Stone directed this frenetic, gritty (bordering on unsavory) drama about a struggling pro team with his usual lack of subtlety. The film captures the intensity of the game with incredibly tight, focused camerawork and lightning-fast editing, and the story pays as much attention to the parallel dramas in the locker-room and executive suites. A terrific cast that includes Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, LL Cool J and a number of actual pro players is hampered by characters who are uniformly unlikable. It’s hard to know from this film whether Stone loves the game or reviles it…maybe both.
Remember The Titans (2000)
In 1971 Alexandria, Va., a group of black and white students are thrown together by integration and must learn to overcome their biases to become a genuine team. The racial dynamics of this story are over-simplified but they nonetheless make for a potent backdrop to the central drama of the squad’s transformation from disconnection to cooperation. Denzel Washington and Will Patton are equally strong as the two coaches who must overcome their own tensions to model a better way for their players.
Friday Night Lights (2004)
Philadelphia Daily News columnist Buzz Bissinger wrote a popular book about the hardscrabble, football-obsessed town of Odessa, Texas, and its high school’s pursuit of the state football championship. That book spawned this film and a much-acclaimed TV series to follow. Billy Bob Thornton plays the coach, Gary Gaines, and a cadre of young Hollywood talent (Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, Lucas Black and Lee Thompson Young) plays the teen athletes who must overcome their personal obstacles and the town’s unrealistically high expectations to become winners.
Draft Day (2014)
This movie, which takes place entirely on the day leading up to the NFL draft, came and went in the theaters quicker than a TV time-out. But I liked it when it was first released and still do. Kevin Costner plays a beleaguered general manager striving to assemble a team despite the barriers of his arrogant coach (Denis Leary), short-fused owner (Frank Langella), and melodramatic mother (Ellen Burstyn). Although it could pass for an NFL propaganda piece, director Ivan Reitman tautly captures the “game” of pro sport politics and the thrill of the well-crafted deal.