Any Given Sunday
Screenplay : John Logan and Oliver Stone
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Al Pacino (Tony D'Amato), Cameron Diaz (Christina Pagniacci), Dennis Quaid (Jack "Cap" Rooney), Jamie Foxx (Willie Beaman), Jim Brown (Montezuma Monroe), LL Cool J (Julian Washington), James Woods (Dr. Harvey Mandrake), Matthew Modine (Dr. Allie Powers), Lawrence Taylor (Luther "Shark" Lavay), John C. McGinley (Jack Rose), Ann-Margret (Margaret Pagniacci), Clifton Davis (Mayor Tyrone Smalls), Aaron Eckhart (Nick Crozier), Charlton Heston (Commissioner), Lauren Holly (Cindy Rooney)
In "Any Given Sunday," director Oliver Stone indulges all of his worst impulses in the service of a storyline that is conventional at best, but he still manages to emerge with a mildly engaging film. Overwrought and underdeveloped, "Any Given Sunday" explodes on the screen with all the sound and fury of Stone's "Natural Born Killers" (1994) without any of the substance. Far from the searing indictment of professional football one would expect from a radical filmmaker like Stone, this is, instead, something quite different: an ode from a dedicated football fan to his favorite sport.
Yes, Stone does look at the dark side of professional sports. He ventures into the locker room and observes athletes who are more obsessed with making money on lucrative endorsement contracts than playing sports. He shows doctors who purposefully ignore potentially fatal consequences and allow athletes to play, rather than hurt the team's chances to get in the playoffs. We see drugs and prostitutes and locker room brawls. But, most of this is on the fringes--details that couldn't be omitted lest Stone be accused of going soft.
Yet, he has gone soft, and "Any Given Sunday" is one of the most conservative, conventional films he has ever made. In the end, the right people are rewarded and the wrong people are punished, the right team wins, the rebel is tamed, and the bitchy businesswoman is put in her place. That Charlton Heston has a small cameo is just icing on the cake.
The sprawling narrative, written by John Logan ("Bats") and Stone, focuses primarily on various battles for control. Control is, if you'll pardon the pun, the controlling theme of the film, and every character is, in some way, vying for more of it. Take, for example, the main character, Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino), head coach of the fictional Miami Sharks. An old-fashioned coach who has been in the sport for 30 years, he finds his traditionally uncontested control over the team threatened from not one, but two directions.
First, he must content with the team's new owner and general manager, Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), who is the daughter of the team's now-deceased original owner who also happened to be Tony's brother. Thus, there are business and family tensions at play. Christina is, like her team's mascot, a shark. At one point, another character remarks that he wouldn't be surprised to see her eat her young. As written, Christina is a vicious female predator who is invading a man's world and, therefore, must be punished (or, at least, put in her place by the dominant male character). Diaz, however, should be praised for portraying the character in a much more multifaceted form, and although her chief emotion in the film is hysteria, she still manages to given Christina some sympathetic moments in which we feel how difficult it is for her to be in her position of power in a male-dominated world that despises her for it.
Secondly, Tony is dealing with an upstart new quarterback, a third-stringer named Willie Beaman (Jamie Foxx) who rises to the occasion when Tony's veteran leader, Jack "Cap" Rooney (Dennis Quaid), a sort of Troy Aikman-Dan Marion-John Elway composite, is injured. Willie is a hotshot with a big head who takes to changing the play calls in the huddle, thus thwarting Tony's control over the team. He also manages to alienate himself from many of his teammates with his selfish remarks and frequent criticisms. For the most part, he does produce on the field; but, like Christina, he is a renegade who must learn his place in Tony's world of control, and by the end of the film he has not only been tamed, but has become Tony's new go-to man and team leader.
Within this plotline are numerous subplots, including the battle for control of the players' medical care between the veteran Dr. Harvey Mandrake (James Woods), who doesn't mind "overlooking" serious injuries if it means the team will do better on the field, thus increasing his benefits, and Dr. Allie Powers (Matthew Modine), an idealistic young intern who still quotes the Hippocratic oath. This subplot comes to a head with an aging linebacker (retired New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor) who has a serious neck injury that could result in paralysis or even death if he takes the wrong kind of hit.
"Any Given Sunday" features a great number of speeches and a lot of yelling. But, once again, Stone shows that his greatest talent often resides in the quiet moments. For all of the screaming and cursing in "Nixon," his 1995 biopic of the flawed President, the best scene in that film was Anthony Hopkins bending down on one knee in front of the fireplace after finding out that he will have to resign, and bitterly weeping and asking God why everyone hates him so much. "Any Given Sunday" features a few quiet scenes of this nature, and they are by far the best in the film. Most affecting is a sequence with Christina sitting in her father's office, overhearing a conversation between Tony and her alcoholic mother (Ann-Marget) in which her mother lets it be known how she truly feels about her ambitious daughter.
Of course, the majority of "Any Given Sunday" takes place on the gridiron, and this is one of its biggest problems. This is the area where Stone lets himself go completely overboard, and he almost drowns in the technical fireworks. Using numerous bits of camera trickery--from slow motion to high-speed film to desaturated color--Stone attempts to convey the brutal violence and dizzying confusion one might feel on the field of play in professional football. Used with restraint, this approach might be effective. However, instead of using it as garnish, this is what Stone serves up as the main dish, and the result is almost nauseating.
Stone rarely if ever pulls his camera out of the action to give the audience a sense of space. His camera is usually tight on only one player, and we lose any sense of what is happening on the field. Thus, many of the football scenes have little impact because it is hard to tell what is actually happening. Is the runner going for a first down? A touchdown? Is he close? I assume Stone was trying to avoid making his movie look like another reel from the NFL Film Archives, but in his rush to distance himself, he ignored some of the basics of filmmaking. A good point of comparison can be found in the Omaha Beach sequence at the beginning of "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). In that sequence, Steven Spielberg used many of the same techniques that Stone uses in his football sequences to convey violence, disorientation, and utter confusion, yet he always kept the audience informed of the larger picture, thus making the action more meaningful because we knew what was at stake.
Despite these many weakness and overindulgences (or perhaps because of them), "Any Given Sunday" is certainly never boring. It is, however, a missed opportunity. Over the last two decades, Stone has been one the great purveyors of American culture in the second half of the 20th century, so it is only natural that his camera gaze would eventually turn to the obsessive American pastime of professional football. What is unfortunate is that, instead of truly digging beneath the veneer and finding something new to say about it, Stone has instead taken a painfully conventional story and tried to hide it beneath an array of technical flourishes and a pounding techno-rock soundtrack. In other words, it's almost all surface and clichés.
©1999 James Kendrick