Jan 29, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 19 • By BRIAN MURRAY
In Rockne (which memorably featured Ronald Reagan as the legendary halfback, George Gipp), Notre Dame's most famous coach is idealized as a warm but demanding teacher who insisted that, at the end of the day, football recognizes that "the finest work of man is building the character of man." At Notre Dame, "we've tried to build courage, initiative, tolerance, and persistence, without which the most educated brain is not worth very much." Varsity Blues offers, instead, Coach Bud Kilmer, a cool sadist who cares only about burnishing his image in the annals of Texas football. Kilmer demeans and intimidates his players and, like his counterparts in North Dallas Forty, eases their access to performance-enhancing drugs. Varsity Blues has proved popular with students, perhaps because they find in Kilmer a satisfying portrait of every jerk coach and gym teacher they've ever known. But more discriminating viewers will find the film -- part Porky's, part Dawson's Creek -- an unwatchable parade of cinematic cliches.
In some ways, Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday (1999) is similarly trite. Football films of recent vintage are filled with shots of savage hits and grunting linemen, tension-breaking cuts to cheerleaders showing plenty of cleavage, and locker-room glimpses of naked guys snapping towels. Stone's film features all of these, as well as a continuous stream of self-consciously arty shots, as if Stone hoped to distract us from his well-weathered plot and stock characters: the crazed linebacker, the crusty coach, the aging quarterback, and the brash kid eager to take his place. Stone also gives us a corrupt, drug-dispensing team doctor and an arrogant owner for whom football players are livestock. And finally, there's the dramatic, season-closing big game.
Never a subtle filmmaker, Stone contends that professional football bears striking similarities to ancient Rome's gladiatorial games. For Stone, team owners are imperious and crass, happy to provide the hordes with a bloody spectacle that can leave its combatants paralyzed or -- as the film's most gruesome scene suggests -- without an eye. Players, too, are an insipid and ruthless lot, driven mainly by a malignant lust for money and fame. Twenty years have passed since the release of North Dallas Forty, but Stone leaves the impression that nothing has changed.
Still, Any Given Sunday is probably the best football movie yet made, carried by its predictable but still somehow compelling plot and the deft casting of Al Pacino as head coach Tony D'Amato. Pacino plays a man who cut his teeth some thirty years ago, back when Starr and Unitas and Hornung still played and Vince Lombardi roamed the sidelines. D'Amato isn't completely out of touch. He accepts the fact that his players, weaned on hip-hop and heavy metal, prefer to dress off field like Barbary pirates; the day has long passed when a coach like Lombardi could order his players to act "like the most dignified professional in your hometown." But D'Amato believes in football's old-fashioned, Lombardian fundamentals: solid teamwork, granite linemen, strict discipline, and a running game with all the subtlety of a Sherman tank.
Stone depicts D'Amato without irony and with considerable sympathy. Indeed, although in such films as Nixon and JFK Stone made himself famous for attacking American institutions, he has also shown a certain fondness for characters who exhibit time-honored American values. Like Carl Fox, the resolute airline mechanic who emerges as a hero in Stone's Wall Street, D'Amato instinctively disdains hype and flash; he seals deals with his handshake, treasures loyalty, and believes a man is only as good as his word. Stone rewards D'Amato, leaving him triumphant in the end, a flawed but fundamentally solid figure still willing to press on in a sport sullied by corruption and excess.
What's next for professional football? Given current trends, it might look increasingly like the XFL, a new professional league that debuts on NBC in early February. The XFL is the brainchild of wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, who argues that the NFL isn't violent enough -- despite the endless stream of injuries, the epidemic concussions and blown knees. From the sound of it, McMahon's eight-team league will stress aggression, melodrama, and theatricality; its televised games will be Monday Night Football meets Survivor meets Mad Max. Thus the XFL will feature, among other things, "Playboy-caliber cheerleaders" and the commentary of Minnesota's governor, the honorable ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura.
Unlike the NFL, it will permit mikes and cameras everywhere: in the locker room as well as on the field. Needless to say, the XFL will encourage its players to talk trash and cavort as they wish. It will, however, eliminate the fair catch and the point-after kick and set up a time clock to make the action go faster. The XFL, like McMahon's World Wrestling Federation, is aimed at television's most coveted viewers, eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old males. And what they supposedly want, the XFL is set to deliver: violence, speed, and sexy cheerleaders.
The XFL is no sure thing. Other NFL rivals have come and gone. But McMahon has made a fortune estimating public taste. If the XFL does succeed, the NFL will be compelled to follow suit. And then it's Lombardi be damned. On any given Sunday, the National Football League will look like the World Wrestling Federation: a Playstation game designed by P. T. Barnum.
Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.