What to Watch: Fighting For That Inch in ‘Any Given Sunday’ (1999)
Classic football film that looks beyond the game on the field.
Any Given Sunday is a 1999 sports-drama about a professional football team experiencing the ups and downs of not only the game of football, but the behind-the-scenes moments that fans hardly, if ever, see.
As fans of sport, we sometimes only look at what’s on the football field, baseball diamond, basketball court, or hockey rink and how good or bad that team is on it. However, the teams that play on and in these sporting arenas are more than that, they’re actual organizations with average–sometimes significant–organizational problems, company culture, employee feuds, etc. If all you see on the field are the athletes, open your eyes. That’s the tagline for the wonderful yet ill-fated 2004 ESPN series Playmakers, but it also applies to Any Given Sunday.
THE STORY: The Miami Sharks have hit a slump at the worst possible time in their season. At 7-5 and losers of three in a row, their playoff push takes a massive hit when their veteran starting quarterback “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid) suffers a brutal injury. Losing the backup QB immediately after this, head coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) is forced to turn to the third-string, inexperienced signal caller Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) to save the game and potentially, the season.
Meanwhile, team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) is trying to get a new stadium for the Sharks and breathe new life into the now-moribund franchise, which means taking long looks at aging coaches like Tony, and players who no longer move the needle such as “Shark” LaVay (Lawrence Taylor) and Rooney.
Beamen’s first game is bumpy, and though Miami loses, he plays well overall and gains immense confidence. His next start goes extremely well in a winning effort, but not without controversy, changing plays without Coach’s permission. The flashy-yet-hardheaded “Steamin” Willie Beamen is born, much to the chagrin of star halfback Julian Washington (LL Cool J), who needs more carries to get his stats and endorsements. Even in wins, everyone on the team is feuding with each other: Owner/coach, coach/quarterback, quarterback/halfback, offensive coordinator/coach, even team physician/intern physician. With their goals in front of them, this team—this organization—needs to become unified to have any shot of achieving them.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: While the poster may need a little explaining, there is much more to this film. Directed by Oliver Stone, Any Given Sunday is often a film in the director’s catalog that seems to get forgotten or unfairly judged. It’s got some rough spots, sometimes haphazard editing, and running over two hours and forty minutes, the pace isn’t always perfect. However, Stone largely succeeds in his vision of underscoring the gladiatorial aspects that make up modern-day professional football. Any Given Sunday is a hard-hitting film that pulls few punches and doesn’t shy away from the rawness both on and off the field.
Stone’s peak into the brutal nature of pro football begins immediately when, as stated before, Cap gets injured. But he truly captures the chaotic nature of playing the game, particularly from the quarterback position. When Beamen enters for the first time after vomiting out of nervousness, the camera begins to become disorienting. Partially because Willie is lightheaded, but really, this effect is present because it accurately represents what it would be like to step into the fire for the first time as a quarterback where everything is moving too fast and nothing slows down. He’s scared and uncertain. The scene is set to Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now, and the song serves as an awakening of sorts. This is just one of the scenes where Stone gets across how frenetic and uncomfortable it can feel to step foot on this field and be asked to perform where one bad hit or unprotected moment can change a man forever.
Additionally, Any Given Sunday is a movie that feels much more relevant now than it did during its release year, and in many ways, it feels like Stone was peering into a crystal ball. The Willie Beamen character is essentially the rise of young mobile quarterbacks who can win from the pocket and beat a defense with their legs. Also, his character is a statement of how fast stars are made, zeroes one second and heroes another. Commercialization of the sport is something brought up in AGS, and for today’s viewer, one would be hard pressed to find someone who likes the endless barrage of TV timeouts and ad breaks.
But, the most haunting and spot-on plotline occurs with linebacker Shark LaVay, portrayed by Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor. Shark is an aging-yet-still-talented vet who’s after one last performance incentive, but his body is failing him, namely, his head. It’s the result of years of collision after collision, and at one point in the movie, Shark looks down for the count. Thankfully, he ends up alright, but this is all too reminiscent of NFL players dying way too soon because of repeated blows to the head, otherwise known as CTE. Technically, his story ends well, but with what is known now, it’s impossible not to think that Shark is fighting a losing battle, one that will not end well for he or his family.
A GREAT MOMENT: Any Given Sunday is littered with stars; from real life football stars playing parts in the film like the aforementioned LT, Terrell Owens, and Jim Brown, to the stacked all-star cast in Quaid, Diaz, LL Cool J, James Woods, Matthew Modine, John C. McGinley, Aaron Eckhart and of course Pacino and Foxx. The latter two steal the show, especially Foxx, who was quite the unknown quantity at the time regarding his potential as a dramatic actor.
Coach D’Amato and Willie Beamen show a fraying partnership early in the film, but a scene taking place in coach’s home splits them apart completely. In it, Coach talks about what it means to be a quarterback, being the guy who takes the fall for the team and is the consummate teammate, while Beamen openly states how he wants to win by being his own guy, and isn’t going to step aside after finally receiving his shot to play.
What makes this scene work so well is that despite D’Amato being painted as the good guy and Beamen the bad guy, both sides of their argument can be seen. It’s sort of a representation of the famous “Inches” speech coach gives at the end of the film. Willie, finally showing a team what he can do as a QB, refuses to give up those inches he’s earned. Tony, knowing he’s near the end of his coaching career, trying desperately to hold onto his inches and beliefs as a football coach. The clash is common modernity vs tradition, and for the two to succeed together, they both need to relinquish a little control and find middle ground, which happens at the end when Tony, in a great twist, leaves Miami to run an expansion team while taking Willie Beamen as his starting quarterback and franchise player.
THE TALLY: Any Given Sunday sometimes gets a bad rap for a myriad of reasons. It’s not exactly uplifting, or focused on only the pigskin and the field. But, choosing to go mostly original in story compared to so many adapted films in the genre gives Any Given Sunday a relevance and realism that few genre films can replicate. It’s what to watch.