Stone's films are nothing if not visceral, pulsing with raw-nerved energy and muscular cunning, but Any Given Sunday takes his penchant for jolting sensory immediacy to new levels of panoramic intensity. The five football games the movie depicts often recall the battle scenes in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, except that the combatants are far larger and the action more ritualistic and unrelenting. Yet even when the story moves off the field into locker rooms, restaurants and homes, the stylistic onslaught seldom abates: every tete-a-tete and private exchange has the heat of combat, the crunching momentum of a freeway pileup.
Is the movie overstuffed with incident, frazzled by its own velocity, dazed by the embrace of excess? No doubt. But no one ever went to an Oliver Stone film expecting meditative minimalism, and you have to grant that this one's epic ambitions extend in some interesting new directions. For a filmmaker who's too often unfairly scored as humorless, it is, for one thing, remarkably, unstintingly funny. Not only is every game scene equipped with more running gags than running backs, but Stone even grinningly joins in the national sport of jibing Oliver Stone: Appearing in several scenes as a sportscaster, he shows himself ogling cheerleaders and skin mags.
More seriously, Any Given Sunday is the first major Hollywood movie in a while that ventures anything close to a persuasive depiction of contemporary racial dynamics in the U.S. And let's face it, any other big movie that even attempted such a thing would spend half its time congratulating itself and cueing our interpretations. Stone, instead, simply creates a world in which almost all of the players and none of owners are black, and pays close attention to the subtle chafings the situation entails. Chief among the film's accomplishments is embodying a host of simmering conflicts in the figure of a young black quarterback named Willie Beamen (brilliantly portrayed by comic Jamie Foxx), who's easily one of the most fascinating and resonant characters in recent American cinema.
You might, in fact, reflect that only an Oliver Stone movie would feature L.L. Cool J alongside Charlton Heston, Lawrence Taylor next to Ann-Margret: Eisenstein's notion of a "montage of attractions" has rarely collided so suggestively with the melting pot's movie iconography. Such casting frissons are possible, in part, because of the film's audacious scope and heteroclite origins.
Any Given Sunday was composed from three preexisting screenplays involving roughly a dozen writers. With its story credited to Daniel Pyne and John Logan and the screenplay to Logan and Stone, the result is crammed with ideas and dramatic trajectories, most having to do with pro football and its symbolic place in American life. The specific milieu here, of course, is the NFL, but since Stone couldn't persuade the league to align its name and official imagery with what it rightly feared might be an overly realistic depiction of current major-league mores, the movie centers on the fictional Associated Football Franchises of America and one of its teams, the Miami Sharks, recently bequeathed by its late owner to his widow, Margaret Pagniacci (Ann-Margret), and their ambitious, modernizing daughter, Christina (Cameron Diaz).
Not least of the film's virtues is the sharp particularity with which it visualizes the modern gridiron. This is surely the most avidly realistic football movie ever, on-field and off-. The players are physical behemoths, pumped on rap and heavy metal, rabid for endorsements and bonuses and maintained by an endless supply of pain-dulling or fun-enhancing pharmaceuticals. They party like it's 1999 (actually, the movie's set a couple of years into the new millennium) and generally behave like the corporate gladiators they are.
With its scads of characters and dense array of subplots, the film constantly feels like it's moving in several directions at once, yet the main dramatic threads are easily discernible. The story begins as the Sharks' 39-year-old quarterback "Cap" Rooney (Dennis Quaid) goes down mid-game with a serious injury. It's the second such loss of the day, and the team's coach, Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino), finds himself obliged to send in rookie quarterback Beamen, whose first action after running on-field is to throw up. It's hardly a promising start, but Willie, in his own way, is something more than a star in the making. He's what D'Amato fears most: the future.
Willie is all brazen nerve and instinct, and once he gets his footing, he's formidable. Rather than being any kind of team player, he's an inspired egomaniac whose hunches and snap decisions win games. The Sharks thus pull out of their losing streak, but at a cost. Willie is soon giving his own endorsements and cutting a rap video, to the increasing resentment of his teammates. For D'Amato, his stardom poses ironic problems on several levels, not least because it gives Christina Pagniacci the sense that the coach, an old crony of her dad's, is a relic of a time when football wasn't so entirely bound up with the showboating of uncontrollable hotshots like Willie.
"Rules of the Game disguised as The Dirty Dozen" is how Stone has drolly characterized his intentions in Any Given Sunday. In other words, he's aiming for a penetrating social critique that plays as a high-impact action drama. I think you have to allow that he achieves the latter part of his prescription flawlessly. The movie's gridiron warfare aspects couldn't be more bone-crunching and sensorially overwhelming. But what about the Renoiresque societal X-ray? There, I think, the film is only partly successful. The most astute things it gives us are either details or generalities, such as the pervasive sense that pro football is being turned into another anonymous fiefdom of corporate America. Overall, though, the film's narrative is too congested, hectic and diffuse to convey metaphorically exactly how this is happening and what it means.
Where the film really resonates is on the level not of plot but of character, and there it's as invested with personal feeling as any Stone film. Reading the script and observing Stone during the movie's production and editing earlier this year, it occurred to me that the character of Tony D'Amato was to an extent a projected self-portrait, full of gnawing worry over the encroachment of age and personal failure. Yet in reflecting on the finished film, something else struck me: the extent to which Stone also sees himself in young, brash, invincible Willie Beamen.
Like other Stone films, only more grandly and pervasively, Any Given Sunday patterns its characters in pairs: the two Pagniacci women; the team doctors played by James Woods and Matthew Modine; the standout backfield Sharks portrayed by L.L. Cool J and Taylor; the subordinate coaches played by Jim Brown (a great supporting performance) and Aaron Eckhart; and so on. These duos indicate contrasts and fundamental oppositions, as they would in many narratives: age and youth, innocence and experience, idealism and corruption. But antagonism isn't all that's suggested by such arrangements, it seems to me. In keeping with Stone's professed Buddhism, there's also a bit of yin and yang, of complementariness and complicity.
That's most strikingly the case with D'Amato and Beamen. Even when the friction between them is at its hottest, you can't consider the two mortal enemies or representatives of ideas that must cancel each other out. They both love football, and that fact alone bridges worlds of difference just as it decisively separates them from all those who never trod the playing field. In any event, the film doesn't lose itself in D'Amato's point of view (with its potential for bathos and self-pity) because it so readily identifies, too, with Willie's.
And much of the reason that works so well, both dramatically and symbolically, is due to the extraordinarily adept and subtle performance of Foxx. His part was surely no cakewalk; Willie's transition from coltish bumpkin to cocksure grandstander held the potential for cartoonish oversimplification at every turn. But Foxx's dead-on authenticity ends up dominating the film. Even next to the great Pacino, who ably captures D'Amato's ironic embattlement, the young actor shines, turning in what to my mind is the year's most commanding and resourceful debut performance.
If Stone feels inclined to identity with Willie, his style alone offers some compelling reasons why he might. And I don't mean just its phenomenal energy and breathless virtuosity, but also its excesses and occasional lack of discipline. The film is hugely engaging to watch, yet, in the final analysis, it often feels too much created in the editing room. And Stone's high-energy, densely layered approach, which reached a zenith of multileveled expressiveness in Nixon, here sometimes feels forced and inappropriate. Practically every scene between D'Amato and Christina, for example, happens at the same intense, argumentative pitch; a few moments of quiet and calm would've helped these moments to breathe and, thus, convince.
Still, we go to movies for charged emotional spectacle, and Stone has few equals at the more meaningful and artistically serious forms of that. In watching Any Given Sunday I thought repeatedly of work by his contemporaries, of Saving Private Ryan's riveting sensory onslaught and Raging Bull's ritualized male combat. Yet while Spielberg and Scorsese are, if anything, overly venerated by the press, Stone remains widely and unduly denigrated.
There is a history to this, a history that deserves to be publicly examined and discussed. It goes back to JFK, a film that was extremely well reviewed when it opened and became a huge worldwide success, but so incensed the political media establishment that it began a campaign of vilification and aspersion that continues to this day. Unfortunately for my trade, the op-ed line came to infect the critical view of Stone. Thus, at a time when the glib put-down is already more prized than the sharpest analysis, one of the cheapest and easiest shots of all is the critical equivalent of eye-rolling and nose-holding at the name of Oliver Stone. (I understand one of the Times' new reviewers specializes in this form of derivative, brain-dead muggery. Too bad.)
Anytime a critical truism becomes as thoughtless and reflexive as bad stand-up comedy, it's ripe for overthrow. I think Stone must sense that too. The last scene of Any Given Sunday merrily gives Tony D'Amato his equivalent of the "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore"?which, as the coach seems to know, was just the prelude to another of that protean politician's many resurrections.
Reeling When I assembled the list of my choices for the best films of the 1990s that appears in this issue, I couldn't help being struck by the disparity between some of my judgments and the films that distributors chose to embrace?and thus, audiences were allowed to see?during the decade.
Consider: Two of the most fruitful and celebrated areas of 90s cinema were Iranian and Chinese films. Yet the top-ranked Iranian and Chinese-language titles on my list?Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up and Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day, from Taiwan, respectively?didn't receive U.S. distribution at a time when independent distributors were trampling each other to pick up all sorts of lesser films. (Likewise, the makers of the decade's most important American documentary, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, had to distribute it themselves.) The 90s were a golden age for enlightened indie distribution? Don't believe it.
There is some good news on this front, however. Both of the early 90s foreign films noted above will soon be seeable in New York. Kiarostami's Close-Up even has a distributor: Zeitgeist Films, which handled the director's Taste of Cherry, now has several of his titles including the 1990 masterpiece that tops my list. Just shy of a decade after it was made, Close-Up will begin its first U.S. commercial engagement on the last day of the millennium, Dec. 31, at the Screening Room. On Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 1 and 2, at the 10:05 p.m. shows, I will show some material related to Close-Up and discuss Kiarostami's work.
Then, on Sunday, Jan. 30, the American Museum of the Moving Image will host the four-hour version of Yang's A Brighter Summer Day, a tale of teenage turmoil in the 60s that has the sweep of a Taiwanese Tolstoy. I'll introduce the showing; it's part of a series of overlooked films of the 90s programmed by members of the New York Film Critics Circle.