FILM

Review: Bread and circuses, American style

Societies need circuses and celebrations of brute metaphor. Politics can't always deliver the goods, which is where spectator sports come in. The Romans had gladiators, Europeans have a primitive version of football where arms - the more graceful of human limbs - are barred from play, and Americans have American football.
We have baseball and basketball too, but those sports lack the violence and thus the dramatic aura of football. How many people have ever wrecked their spines on the baseball diamond, or suffered chronic concussions from getting hit in the head too often by a leather ball? Furthermore, how many sports compete with God for a day of the week?

Any Given Sunday

Running time: 2 hours, thirty minutes
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Starring : Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, Jim Brown
About: American Football
Rating: 6 out of 10

Societies need circuses and celebrations of brute metaphor. Politics can't always deliver the goods, which is where spectator sports come in. The Romans had gladiators, Europeans have a primitive version of football where arms - the more graceful of human limbs - are barred from play, and Americans have American football.

We have baseball and basketball too, but those sports lack the violence and thus the dramatic aura of football. How many people have ever wrecked their spines on the baseball diamond, or suffered chronic concussions from getting hit in the head too often by a leather ball? Furthermore, how many sports compete with God for a day of the week?

With his latest movie, Any Given Sunday, Director Oliver Stone tackles the great American obsession. Despite his reputation for social commentary, in over two hours of film he delivers only one message: football is glitzy, empty on the inside, but great fun to watch. Indeed, he must be an enormous fan to have devoted such resources and energy to the sport. Five minutes into the action the viewer feels a bit like that anonymous coach from somewhere in the depths of football lore who looked out across the field at a rival, turned to a player and said, "He's throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink."

First Stone throws actors at us, not unlike the barrage in JFK. There's Al Pacino, the ageing coach whom the game is passing by, Dennis Quaid, the three-time MVP star quarterback who gets injured in the opening five minutes, Cameron Diaz the shrew that owns the team, and Jamie Fox, the young quarterback with unstoppable speed and an attitude to match.

Those are only the main characters, but their descriptions pretty much sum up the plot. The film's other story is beautiful camerawork. A typical sequence might start with ground-level shot of two teams lined-up waiting for the ball to snap. Cut to the crowd, including full-on audio. Cut to the quarterback with just the sound of him breathing. Cut to black and white clips of his memories - past glories and roaring stadiums. Slam! The ball is snapped and the sequence is repeated.

Stone obviously had a lot of fun making this movie. In one scene he has Jim Brown (Hall-of-Fame runningback) berating Lawrence Taylor (Hall-of-Fame linebacker) with unprintable synonyms for the word 'sissy'. A speech that Pacino gives near the end, even though you see it coming from the opening montage, is alone worth the price of admission. Lest we think he takes his football movie too seriously, Stone goes over the top a few times, most strikingly when an eye is dislodged from its socket.

Pigskin enthusiasts in it just for the football will probably get frustrated with the film for being cutesy when the action is at its best. Lovers of cinema will be disappointed that the skilful director makes no attempt to take the story beyond sport clichés.

On the other hand, would it be more honest to portray football players and those who surround them as people who think and live beyond the bounds of sports metaphors? It's not Stone's fault that the further you get from the spiralling ball the more melodramatic and shallow it all becomes. Nor that despite this, we still like to watch.

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