Party Like It's 1999: Any Given Sunday
For the next several weeks, we are celebrating films celebrating their 20th anniversary this year that have stuck with us! Find additional entries in the series here.
With his never ending parade of "Hoo-Ah's!" and zero to sixty scenery chewing outbursts that he called acting, the Al Pacino of the 90's was a shoe in for the role of a professional football coach. Less likely to direct such a film was Oliver Stone, who had been almost singularly focused on political, war and crime dramas for the first twenty years of his career. But that's exactly what we got with 1999's Any Given Sunday. It should have been no surprise, however, that it would land firmly in Oliver Stone's wheelhouse. This is not much of a football movie, as it is a movie about capitalism and big business, and the people who get ground up in it like grist for the mill. He sees the athletes on the field as soldiers in war, or gladiators in the coliseum. Killing each other and themselves for entertainment and the dollars they stand to win or lose.
At two and a half hours, Any Given Sunday is a huge movie. It is nearly as ambitious and overloaded with detail and passion as his opus JFK. Stone was always obsessed with analyzing structures, hierarchies and institutions, picking them apart and putting them back together to see what makes them work. He did it with the American war machine in Platoon, the media in Natural Born Killers, the office of the presidency in Nixon, veterans affairs in Born On The Fourth Of July. The NFL is as essential an American institution as any of those, so it turns out to be a perfect fit for receiving the Oliver Stone treatment.
Pacino stars as Tony D'Amato, the coach of the fictional Miami Sharks football team. D'Amato has to contend with an aging quarterback in Dennis Quaid, an ambitious young team owner in Cameron Diaz, a doctor who is all too willing to cut ethical corners in James Woods, and a third string quarterback who becomes the unexpected star of the show in Jamie Foxx. The fact that Stone requested use of the NFL official team logos but was denied makes his takedown of the system even more potent. Looking back at the last 15 years of bad headlines for the NFL, with their attempts to cover up the effects of concussions and CTE, turning a blind eye to domestic violence, the squashing of player dissent, the blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick and more, Any Given Sunday shows us the NFL we know very well now, but that we didn't know nearly as well back then. It feels downright prophetic to watch in 2019.
In JFK, Stone and his editing team proved themselves masters of the form, and they do so again here. The blending of archival and non-archival footage, the dissolves, collages, close-ups and framing choices are bold enough to land easily in the same ballpark of Spike Lee- whose He Got Game came out a year earlier and took a similar look at the NBA. It makes for an experience that feels like the cinematic equivalent of a rollercoaster. Also like that film, the central thread involves and old man and his young protege, with D'Amato and young Willie Beamen (Foxx), in a relationship that calls to mind a non-romantic A Star Is Born. For the most part it works, but often delves uncomfortably into territory where it sounds like Stone has a lot of opinions about how young black men should live their lives, and how responsibly they should handle their riches.
Also a classic Stone move, the film reeks of misogyny, as team owner Christina Pagniacci (Diaz) becomes the villain. She is a power hungry young woman whose main sin is that she wants to be taken as seriously as her father, the former owner, was. Aside from Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers, Stone has never conceived of a female character with agency beyond her ability to soothe a man's ego (and it was Quentin Tarantino who wrote that character). Diaz becomes a walking stereotype, a Power Suit on a woman's body. He punishes her for trying to do her job with common sense- while in the end, D'Amato, a classic Pacino fuck up (and spiritual cousin to his Heat character, Vincent Hannah) who has been wrong about nearly everything in the entire movie, gets the last word and triumph.
This all blends together into one of the absolute boldest and most unapologetic films of 1999. I saw this in theaters when I was 13, as a young boy who not only loved football but loved Platoon and JFK. It seemed like catnip for me. But I was supremely turned off by it. Rewatching it now, no kidding! I had no idea what Stone was really up to, and just did not know enough about the American experiment to appreciate this. It is a messy film in so many ways, but you simply won't see a studio film that is this bold, ambitious and brave ever again. It's enough to make me think it is Stone's hidden masterpiece.