OLIVER STONE
By Jason O'Brien
jaobrien@charter.net









On any given Sunday you’re gonna win or you’re gonna lose. The point is — can you win or lose like a man?
ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (1999)

Starring Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Ann-Margret, James Woods, Matthew Modine, Jim Brown, Bill Bellamy, LL Cool J, Charlton Heston, Lauren Holly, Elizabeth Berkley
Written by John Logan and Oliver Stone
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Clayton Townsend, Dan Halsted
Cinematography: Salvatore Totino
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

What would be the result when Oliver Stone took his filmmaking tactics and expertise of portraying war on screen onto the gridiron and into the world of professional football? The result is one of the most intense and detailed sports movies ever made, a film as much about professional football's inner workings as it is about the emergence of new generations and the passing of the old.

Any Given Sunday is clearly the most mainstream film that Oliver Stone has ever directed, and by the end, it's also the most hopeful of all Stone films. Stone had many messages to convey in this film, but the messages are almost secondary to the well written and especially acted story involving an aging coach, a quarterback past his prime, the daughter of a team's owner who really does not know the game of football, and of course the new rising quarterback whose skill may either ensure the future success of the team or break it apart. I found myself responding more to the overall story this time around than with the messages in the film, and this also marks a change of pace for Stone. Not that the messages are not there -- they certainly are -- and they are all issues which do leave an impact and needed to be said. We see how the game has changed from a true sport into a business, where players and their doctors don't care whether they may be permanently injured if it means they can make extra money for a little extra effort. It shows how the game has been changed and molded by television, as we see sports announcers who really don't seem to care about the game, only the ratings. It shows the players and coaches who really do care about the game and its history amongst all the changes in the game. The strongest message that stuck with me after the film however was the passing of older generations and the emergence of the new, and the inherent tension that comes with that.

The film's plot starts right off the bat, after a well shot opening, which sets the mood for the film. The Miami Sharks are experiencing a three game losing streak, and it looks like they are about to lose their fourth. All of a sudden, their star quarterback, Cap Rooney, played handily by Dennis Quaid, is injured and taken out of the game. The backup quarterback, on the very next play, is also injured and taken out. So in comes the third string, Willie Beaman (played incredibly well by Jamie Foxx), who starts by throwing up on the field out of nervousness, at which Tony D'Amato (the coach played incredibly well by Al Pacino) remarks "That's a first." That eventually becomes Beaman's odd trademark, getting the nervousness out of his system, after which he performs like a master on the field. Immediately, we can see that Beaman is a rebel, often changing the plays in the huddle, but his instincts bring the Sharks out of their losing streak and give them hope for the playoffs.

Right from the start, we realize Stone's film is much different from the typical sports films of the past. Stone is never content to just set a camera down and let the action happen before it. Stone takes us onto the field, and into the action in a way that we've never before seen unless we've played pro football ourselves. The action on the field is almost always shot hand-held, on the field, closeup in the middle of the plays, and sometimes to the film's detriment, we can not always determine what is happening in the game itself. In this way, Any Given Sunday is very similar to Stone's Vietnam films, where he placed the camera directly into combat and made us disoriented, experiencing what the soldier felt. Here we experience what the players feel. Stone continues to use his expert knowledge of cinema to create a very technically accomplished film, using sound, editing, and cinematography again in very inventive ways, slowing down the film at many times, and cutting faster than an MTV video. For the first 30 minutes or so of the film, I began to worry that the film may be too overstylized and too quickly edited. At the start, the film is too overproduced and one worries whether the story or the slickly produced images and montages will dominate the film.

Thankfully, the story does emerge, the characters begin to be further fleshed out, and a unique film experience soon emerges. The film is just under three hours in length, and it almost needs to be longer to let all these characters emerge fully. But as it is, the film still has an interesting story to tell. As Cap Rooney recovers, the team's new owner, played very well by Cameron Diaz, clashes with Tony on the condition and future of the Sharks franchise. The coach also clashes with the new quarterback, trying to instill in him the sense of team and history inherent with the cherished role of professional quarterback. Eventually, even the team begins to turn against Beaman, who becomes a huge success, making his own music video, making endorsements, the usual success story. As Rooney recovers, he realizes his future with the Sharks may be in jeopardy, and he quickly tries to move his recovery along. The coach continues to fight to have Rooney back in the game, and in a very good scene with Diaz, argues about the old days when her father owned the team, and he was allowed to have control over what he did with the team. So in a way the clashes of different generations also takes place with the younger owner and the older coach, as well as the clash of the new quarterback on the scene. Eventually, come time for the big first game of the playoffs, Rooney does his get his chance to return as the team's quarterback, after some initial nervousness. I guess any sports movie has to have the traditional big game at the end, but in Stone's hands, this time around the cliches don't seem cliched anymore.

Stone continues the visual style during the final game of putting the camera directly into the action, and as the game gets more suspenseful towards the finish, the characters are changing. Beaman becomes respectful of Rooney and his years as a successful quarterback, and in return Rooney becomes respectful of Beaman, realizing he is the future of the franchise, and the future is secure. And by the time the game is over, Stone has left the viewer with a hopeful message, that there is hope for these characters we've followed, and perhaps even some hope for the future of the game as it enters the 21st century. As he did at the end of Nixon, the final credits roll but Stone still has more story to tell. There's a nice little surprise during this sequence which takes the characters in even different directions, but for me, the film rightfully ends before that credit sequence begins. The most powerful, well written, and well acted scenes throughout the film are between Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx, particularly in a scene at dinner where Tony admits he wants Rooney back in the game, and Beaman tries to convince him why he is the way he is. And I also particularly liked the scene after the final game, as Beaman and D'Amato talk as they walk through the empty stadium.

Stone's unique visual style continues into this film, but without a lot of the use of different film stocks and black and white, which was a regular feature for a few of Stone's films in the early 90's. Even without his usual Academy Award winning cinematographer, Robert Richardson, the visuals in this film are truly memorable. Stone even mixes up footage of the football past to comment on the new. The film also makes some of the football games look very gritty and dark in a very unique way, especially one game taking place during a torrential downpour. Stone really makes us feel what these football players go through, continuing to make him one of our greatest directors for bringing true realism of an experience that a lot of the viewers have not had or will never have.

Because of some of Stone's issues about professional football, the NFL did not want anything to do with this film, and so Stone could not make use of any of their team logos or the Super Bowl logo, but that doesn't even matter. Everyone knows that these things happen every day in pro football, so it never becomes an issue that the league and the teams in the film are fictionalized. The point in this film is the realism, and Stone pulls that off incredibly well.

Stone has again taken a very distinguished list of actors, and brought out very accomplished performances by all of them. Stone even gave himself a much more significant role in the film than he has ever done in his past films, where he usually makes a brief appearance. Stone plays a sports announcer for the Sharks, who likes to spend his time reading a nudie magazine while announcing, and spotting beautiful ladies in the audience. Al Pacino is of course one of a kind, and he brings a unique passion to his part of the aging coach, especially in scenes with Willie Beaman, and particularly in his impassioned speech to the players at the end right before the big game against the Dallas Knights. The one performance I was particularly impressed with, more than I thought I would be, is that of Jamie Foxx, he does a very good job portraying a rebel who must slowly learn to have respect for those who went before.

My only minor complaint is that the football scenes are filmed in such closeup action most of the time, that you often do not know what's going on, but as I thought it about more, I realized this made Stone's film a much different sports film than most others, and like everything else Stone has done, this manages to put us right in the action head-on, and spares us nothing. Other than that, I thought Charlton Heston's role as the league commissioner was way too small for such a legendary actor, I expected more of him and I think they could have signed up an unknown for such a small part, although I like the comparison of D'Amato watching Ben-Hur with Heston in it earlier and then he is the one playing the commissioner.  His appearance all of a sudden takes a little focus off the action of the final game, but it's only minor. One quick thought : Elizabeth Berkley with dark hair is damn sexy!   Sorry, had to say it ... she actually has a small role as the prostitute who D'Amato spends some off hours with. Cameron Diaz also came off surprisingly well, as a very strong female presence in a game dominated by men. And all of the supporting players are very effective, particularly Jim Brown and some of the real football players who help contribute to this movie.

Oliver Stone is continuing to be the ultimate director digging up this land we call America and bringing its problems to the forefront for better examination. But for the first time, after he digs all this up and exposes its underbelly, he closes it with hope, perhaps revealing a shift in Stone's focus, but the brilliant thing about Stone is, no matter how he has closed his films, by the time they are over, he has still brought a very unique perspective on everything he tries to talk about. I don't think we can ever look at professional football quite the same way after we've seen it through Stone's eyes, just like we can never see the government of the United States, the war in Vietnam, Wall Street, talk radio, or the 60's ever the same after we've seen it and experienced it through Oliver Stone's eyes. An experience through Stone's films is always a roller coaster ride, and this film is no exception. I loved the wonderful sense of past, present, and future which Stone brings to Any Given Sunday, comparing the gladiators of our past to those of the future. Stone indeed can portray war better than any other, no matter if it's the war in Vietnam, the war of a man's soul, or the war on a football field. It's an incredibly accomplished film.

As is the tradition on the Stone web site, I am posting additional reviews of the film as they come in from the members of my Oliver Stone E-mail group. I have always thought this site would be more successful if I provide a forum for other views beside my own, particularly if they may differ somewhat with my views. So with that, here are some other views:

REVIEW BY Carmelo Giardina (Posted 12/23/99)

AN EXHAUSTING LOOK AT FOOTBALL
Review of 'Any Given Sunday'
By Carmelo Giardina

Any Given Sunday is a movie experience that all sports fans should taste. It's fueled with awesome adrenaline and definitely allows the viewer to comprehend just how terrifying it must be to even consider being on a football field with these monster men that act more like wild animals than wild animals themselves. Stone gives his viewer an up-close, in-your-face look at the game itself, the sideline interaction and the locker room meetings at pre-game, half-time, and post-game. But aside from all that, the film lacks that one ingredient that would have sent this film to greatness.

We all know that the sport of football is a multi-billion dollar business, with it's own fair share of scandals and controversies. So I was a bit disappointed that Stone didn't delve deeper into the politics of the game. (Perhaps he's afraid that he'll be overstepping his boundaries again, but that's what makes his movies so powerful.) I wanted to know more of what happens behind the scenes. Instead we only get a brief taste of it.

Stone ends up focusing too much on the game itself, and although it's good footage, he keeps interrupting great sequences with sometimes an exhausting amount of jump-cutting that completely bombards the viewer and comes across as too disorientating at times. I liked the chaotic sense of it all, but it was chaotic enough without the constant super-fast MTV editing (certain scenes did call for this, I must admit, but I would have liked to have seen a stretch of the action that didn't involve quick edits and whiplash pans to serve as the chaos that undoubtedly is felt on the field.) I also would have liked to have seen a full sequence - without the quick edit interference - for the benefit of me at least being able to follow the game. Too often, Stone showed us a play from one series, and then time is supposedly elapsed to show us the play of another series and then we're shown the defense for a play or two and then back to offense etc. It would have been great to have actually been able to follow a certain portion of the game in its proper flow - offensive series, followed by defensive series - with the added benefit of seeing it all in the in-your-face format Stone delivers his picture in. This, I believe, would have made it more exhilarating.

I enjoyed all the aspects of the movie that related directly to playing the game. What I didn't much like were the small side-stories because I felt they just slowed things down. Stone maybe wants this film to be an overall look at the sport and what goes on off the field, but he seems to make it clear from the start that this film is going to be more heavily focused on the games themselves; the wins, the losses, the bone-crunching battles. Any deviation from that and it loses its power until we go back on the field for another game. It's not an even balance. The movie relies too heavily on the speed and intensity of the on-field action and founders whenever we get to the off-field plot. The middle act is slow and drags through an in-depth look at the players, the coaches, the doctors, the owner, the owner's mother, and the former star quarter-back and his demanding wife (the scene where Lauren Holly smacks Dennis Quaid's character across the face because he's contemplating retirement is perhaps too much of a fabrication - it got plenty of laughs from the audience, but somehow I think they implied "yea, right!").

I enjoyed the film as a sports movie and it ranks as one of the better sports movies made. But something told me after I walked out that this movie could have been more. Stone was quoted in a magazine saying: "This film is to football, what GoodFellas was to gangsters." Stone was implying that besides the hits, we'd actually get to experience what it would be like to be in such a world. In Any Given Sunday, we only get half of what Stone promised. We get plenty of hits, but we also get plenty of missed opportunities.  (B+)

LINKS:
Complete Detailed Film Data on Any Given Sunday at the Internet Movie Database
Roger Ebert's Review of Any Given Sunday
Warner Bros. Official Web Site for Any Given Sunday
"Clotheslined", SportsJones Article on the Film


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