Oliver Stone’s football saga as an overtly ambitious sporting melodrama

Oliver Stone’s 1999 sports drama film Any Given Sunday is a most unconventional sports flick ever made.

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Stone’s larger-than-life, energetic sports feature, showcasing the on and off field exploits of a professional football team known as the Miami Sharks, is a smorgasbord of intense sporting action, powerful melodrama, plethora of image flashes and head-bursting rock music at the start of each of the games. It tries really hard to fuse all these elements into the mainstream storyline, desperately trying to keep everything at the fore. Stone has subtly presented a juxtaposition of modern-day able-bodied football stars and the Roman gladiators, both of whom are members of two different but nonetheless similar bloodsports.   The film glances at the sport of professional football from every conceivable angle, but with a cool detachment, and, given the number of elements in the storyline, stays well-balanced till the end.

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It features an ensemble cast of characters out of which a few performances are, however, noteworthy. The character-centric narrative portrays a once-successful player-turned-coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) who has fallen out of favor with the team’s senior management after the Sharks lose four games in a row. D’Amato’s inefficacy can be partly attributed to his supposedly “outdated” coaching techniques and mid-life crisis. Third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), replacement for the fading and injured quarterback Jack Rooney (Dennis Quaid), is fast and able but shows unethical antics on and off the field and has disciplinary problems with the coach and the entire team. As further pressure begins to build, D’Amato’s position, and his relation with the senior management officials as well as the team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), is seriously jeopardized.

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Realizing the inevitable need for a change in the team’s fortunes, D’Amato delivers the magnificent “inch-by-inch” speech (Al Pacino’s performance is to be seen to be believed, I give you that!) to the team members in the locker room. The final climactic game vs Dallas Knights is peppered with scenes of  bone-jarring, teeth-shattering action (as much as a flick could hope to give), and a cornucopia of flashing images to portray the intensity of the situation. It somehow ends in a last-minute, hard-fought victory for the Sharks. The movie epilogue shows coach D’Amato handing over the reins to his offense coordinator Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart) at a press conference, and then flabbergasting everyone by announcing that he’s starting all over again and giving it another shot.

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The essence of the story, the continuation aspect, is that the team, and most importantly the coach, still have some fight left in them. No matter how worn out the team be, the players are still good enough to beat an opponent “….on any given Sunday”. A major morality aspect of the story pits the old school of football philosophy, represented by D’Amato and Rooney against the new school where instant television celebrity status plays a major role.

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Any Given Sunday really sweats it out to cover the sport in all its forms and behind-the-scene aspects, but it never tries to be the downright description on the subject. Eventually the strains in the screenplay are given away by superficial game sequences. Thus, no matter how much maelstorm of images and vignettes it flings at the viewer, in the end the film’s compelling human drama remains its most moving aspect. After trudging through a winding maze of on and off field sequences, locker room drama and the fray of colliding athletic superstuds for two and a half hours, the viewer is lost but its just then that the movie ties all its threads together, culminating in the climactic victory.

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