Sports films based on true stories come with an inherent drama. It’s a combination of the herculean effort it takes to accomplish success in a given sport with the pure passion that explodes from the human story.
To be a success, a director needs to take that natural drama and gingerly play it out, making the viewer care for the person, then their athletic accomplishments. Tilt the story too much in either direction and the drama suffers.
Director Angelo Pizzo’s “My All American” comes very close to committing such a fumble, but the human story is so heart-tugging strong and Finn Wittrock’s performance so good that those elements fortify the natural drama.
Wittrock plays Freddie Steinmark, a Colorado native who ends up playing on the University of Texas football team in the late 1960s. Considered too small to play for any major college, Steinmark’s no-holds-barred approach to playing football attracts the attention of University of Texas head coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart).
Steinmark becomes an inspiration to everyone around him. His positive attitude is so infectious, he lifts the team to a championship season.
But that positive attitude is tested when Steinmark is diagnosed with bone cancer and loses his left leg.
It’s not easy playing a character who is always positive and upbeat. The character can easily become painfully annoying. Wittrock embodies the role so much that his positive performance shines. He’s just as believable lifting the spirits of a fellow teammate as he is discussing his future with his true love (Sarah Bolger).
Eckhart’s performance as Royal blends the tough-as-nails approach of the coach with moments of fatherly affection. He lets just enough emotion come through to show the respect the coach has for his player.
One of the biggest flaws is the makeup used to age Eckhart. The movie is bookended by Royal telling the story of Freddie Steinmark to a reporter. The makeup needed to show Eckhart as an aged Royal is so weak that it is more of a distraction than helpful in telling the story. Pizzo, who also wrote the script, shouldn’t have resorted to the worn-out structure of having a person tell a story from their past.
As expected, the movie moves to a deeply emotional ending. The smart thing Pizzo does is focus more on the uplifting moments in the final days of the player’s life – especially his appearance at the Cotton Bowl only three weeks after his surgery.
It is a moment that could have been melodramatic, but Wittrock’s energy keeps that from happening.
It would have been an insult to have turned such a powerful story about such a positive person into a melancholy tale. The movie keeps up the same optimism as the central character.
The place where Pizzo almost fumbles is in the football elements. All of the training and recruiting parts were necessary. But Pizzo becomes too engaged with staging some of the football games, leading to some very slow moments.
This story is strong enough on its own.
“My All American” has all of the pure courage shown in “Rudy” and the strong emotional elements of “Bang the Drum Slowly.” There are a few small problems, but Wittrock delivers a performance that makes “My All American” a winner.