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oliver stone marathon - film 11
(previous: u turn <- -> next: comandante)
stone was one of the first directors i started following, as he was making dynamic, impactful films right when i was old enough to start picking films apart and not just escaping into them. i've been revisiting his old narrative work through documentaries or by watching with the commentary, but this is about the point where stone's most interesting work is documentary. narratively, he was running into a lot of walls, having difficulty making movies about who he wanted to cover in the way he wanted to cover them. he still had one great epic narrative in him yet though, and no, it wasn't alexander...
i've already written before about stone's many struggles to get certain projects made, like how he struggled for years with evita and finally handed it off and made nixon as his follow-up to nbk instead. well, he faced a similar issue after u turn. he'd always made edgy, controversial films, but it was different when his films were getting the box office results to cool off that heat. his last few hadn't balanced. so at this point he started getting a lot of people just not trusting him any more, being more insistent about control over the script elements. he was working on a film to be called "memphis", about mlk jr....but it kept getting delayed due to disagreements with the king family (they wouldn't allow any adultery to be shown, for one.)
stone also signed on to do a script re-write and direct american psycho when lionsgate was trying to do it as a big budget film. the branding seemed to match with stone's lingering fame from nbk, at least. leonardo dicaprio would be playing the role of patrick bateman, with james woods in the role of donald kimball, and cameron diaz as evelyn williams. however, literally everyone was telling leo that this would be career suicide after titanic, where so much of his audience was now young girls who either couldn't see or wouldn't like this film. he was struggling to work out these concerns with stone, and in the end they couldn't see eye-to-eye and both left the project (leo to go do the beach, stone in talks to take over the mission impossible series.)
with these projects joining the ranks of dead-in-the-water stone passion-plays like al pacino's "noriega" and a biopic on ayn rand, stone looked perhaps a little farther afield than his usual film subjects, and surprisingly landed on football. well, surprising when you see the final product i suppose, but not if you know about jamie williams. he was the first credited screenwriter for the film, a recently-retired tight end in the nfl. after a solid but not historic 12-year football career, it might seem strange that stone would team up to tell his story...until you find out about his other interests. williams is a big fan of comics, social justice, education, and poetry. for his doctoral dissertation, he interviewed a range of leaders that included the archbishop desmond tutu shortly after the end of apartheid in cape town. he is very much stone's kind of guy.
any given sunday, however, is not really williams' story, though he has a few similarities to jamie foxx's character in the film. but stone likes to make his stories large, epic even, dissertations on the soul of america and the conflicts it experiences when business and politics and society force moral compromises. stone gradually wrote more and more, adding two other football scripts to williams' in order to tell the story of american football, as it were, a sprawling examination of "america's favorite pastime" from the level of the 'grunt' player up through the quarterback, the coaches, the manager, the owners, the investors, and ultimately america at large. no aspect is spared, from the medical controversies of the sport to the marketing opportunities, the ties with city mayors and state governors, and of course solid amounts of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.
this is oliver stone, after all.
what we get here in the “directors cut” i watched is actually 6 minutes shorter than the theatrical cut. reportedly, stone was under studio pressure to finish up the movie, as it had been positioned for a big tentpole release. when it came time for the dvd, stone was free to go back in and re-edit the film, and i have to say i think i actually preferred the one he made under duress. stone works well under pressure, with a lot of his early films having benefitted greatly from it. i'd have to do a scene-to-scene comparison, but it seems a lot of the game sequences were recut, and just a lot of the editing has this more pensive feel. this version feels a little more streamlined somehow, but i liked the sprawl and ambition and chaos of the theatrical cut.
of course, the big thing that will stand out is the eyeball. famously, or infamously, stone added in a scene here where a player's eye is accidentally gouged out during a play, the whole thing dangling by the nerve outside his skull, needing to be reattached. his this ever happened in american football? no. could it ever happen? also probably no. i think this is stone pushing his metaphor past the limit: that these are our modern day gladiators. like rome while its society crumbled, the emperors said "give them bread and circuses", and we too have our sport and creature comforts to distract us from making any meaningful political change. stone cuts in many scenes from ben-hur in the arena, and he actually casts charlton heston in a cheeky cameo, too. him as an nfl regulator is intentional: yesterday's rebels become today's establishment.
stone is going for some kind of grand history of the pastime in this film, connecting the past to the present in some way that i couldn't quite grasp. maybe i'm not familiar enough with the sport, but he employs techniques like in the doors and natural born killers and even nixon, overlaying images of past nfl players onto the current stadium, intercut with lightning and crashing thunder. he wants something elemental, visceral, primal, to match the testosterone and booming music and drugs and sex and cursing that populate his modern football world. these guys are warriors, and the game field is a battle field. the stakes they play at, the damage their bodies accumulate means that their lives are practically over by the time they hit 35. a subplot is that one of these players could incur a debilitating, possibly life-ending brain injury if he just takes one more bad hit, but he'll go out on the field and risk it to be able to finish out his contract. the stakes are high, and that shit is real.
jamie foxx aside, a lot of the physicality on this screen is impressively authentic. stone's teams are populated by bodybuilders and real athletes, including many actual nfl players like lawrence taylor and tyrell owens. the real athletes make jokes at foxx's expense, about him being short and “anorexic”. it seems almost bizarre, foxx is insanely fit, but he would be much smaller than the smallest tight end playing professionally at the time. even dennis quaid would be short and underweight for a quarterback, barely passing. american football players are just on another level. it's a testament to the way stone and fantastic cinematographer salvatore totino shot this that we don't really clock any of these guys being "just actors". the football scenes feel incredibly real, some of the best ever captured in a narrative film.
of course, like with most of stone's work, he couldn't get any actual official cooperation. the nfl declined to participate, i'm guessing because stone delved too much into impending medical scandals and the financial side of how football teams drain city tax money that would be better spent on the public good. but it's clear that his "miami sharks" team is a stand-in for the dolphins, and quaid for then-aging quarterback dan marino. (marino's house is actually used for quaid's character's house, and marino did end up retiring the year after this.) pacino's head coach too has a lot in common with the contentious relationship jimmy johnson had with marino and the dolphins. stone covers his bases of course by mentioning real teams in the film and saying that the sharks are in a different league, but it's an obvious cya while he exposes the underbelly of the sport.
but i've been talking about the deeper themes of the film, the impressive breadth and depth and artistry...what that misses is that this movie is a helluva lotta fun! jam-packed with music from the practices to the locker rooms, there's a reason the dvd has a "skip to a song" play mode. there's also a version where you just watch the games, which are like watching dramatic highlights of a real tv game, just with better close-ups and dialogue you can actually here. stone zooms in on a cocked arm, catches an insanely tight spiral, follows an epic run down field...i'm not a sports guy, but i love me a sports movie. this thing is pure adrenaline, the thrill of human bodies working in concert to pull off dramatic feats. splice that with genuine dialogue, a strong dose of comedy, and gorgeous shots, and i think this makes for a film that flies by despite its two and a half hour runtime.
so what's not to like? well, with such a wide aim, it can feel like stone doesn't go too deeply into any one aspect here. ostensibly, the film is about an aging quarterback and the rising star who could replace him. and it's about an aging coach and the young manager who wants to replace him. but it's also about the nuts and bolts of football, how the money involved impacts the game in all kinds of ways, corrupting something that should be fun, entertaining, and turning it from a kids' sport into a cutthroat business. it ends up being a surprisingly optimistic film though, and i won't spoil how, but stone makes the case for young and old learning from each other and finding a kind of balance. that's pretty unusual for a stone film.
the lack of depth can't be put on any of the supporting players, of which there are many. stone might have the deepest bench in hollywood, with many of his regulars from jimmy woods to john c. mcginley popping up here. but he also gets strong performances from unpredictable corners: both older actors like ann margret and of course pacino, and younger actors like elizabeth berkley, ll cool j, and lauren holly. the latter was mostly known for tv, but she kills it her as quaid's domineering trophy wife. llcj was just getting started acting back then, and berkley was trying to recover from showgirls (hence why she plays a high-class callgirl here).
but really this is pacino's show, and in my opinion this is up there with his best performances. he gives arguably the best half-time speech in cinematic history. he is at times vulnerable, at others, steely. he doesn't just do the loud-quiet school of 2-dimensional acting that i think he started to become known for shortly after this. it's really a full-featured performance. i do wish he got to bounce off quaid a bit more, because quaid is just so damn likable and fun to watch with everyone, but he's good opposite diaz or any of the number of characters we see here. even stone, who casts himself in his biggest role as one of the tv commentators, turns in a realistic performance. while this can feel overstuffed and long, it's at least overstuffed with greatness.
any given sunday is, for me, the quintessential american football movie. it pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. there's no "team rallies to pull off a trick play and win the championship" moment. there are a lot of ups and downs rather than a clear "the team comes together" arc. it doesn't hold your hand through the complexities of the game, so that could be a slight barrier to appreciation, though certainly not a barrier to entry. success corrupting people and people making compromises and rationalizing in order to chase success is universally understandable. i think stone would go on to explore that a bit in his next big narrative film, alexander, though a lot less successfully than in this banger...
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