Football is more than a contact sport—it’s a collision of extremes. More alarming than the physical nature of the game is the fact that it’s played by hulking men who risk their long-term well-being for short-term acclaim. Their activities off the gridiron, however, are equally fast-paced and possibly even more dangerous, as players are treated like pawns by overseers in ivory towers.
Fifteen years ago today, Oliver Stone brought this war of eccentricities to the big screen with Any Given Sunday, the director’s grandiose look at the high-octane world of professional football. In retrospect, Stone was the best director to construct this exaggerated portrait of brutality and vice. If there's one thing Stone can do, it's shock an audience into seeing a gruesome truth.
The theatrics that accompany pro football fall right into Stone's comfort zone, a space that's often controversial. While Any Given Sunday pales in comparison to the filmmaker's best work, it incorporates themes from his other projects. The egotism and greed is reminiscent of Wall Street, as "Steamin'" Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) gets caught up in life the same way Bud Fox did as he was lured into the world of white-collar crime by Gordon Gekko. The borderline scandalous political moves and deception that takes place in the Sharks’ front office evokes memories of JFK and Nixon. Beamen’s rapid metamorphosis from nobody to insufferable celebrity is akin to how the media transformed Mickey and Mallory Knox into stars in Natural Born Killers. The most overt connection, though, lies in Stone’s war trilogy, primarily Platoon. Stone, a Vietnam veteran, has a fascination with the topic, and in Any Given Sunday, he turns the football field into a battlefield. (In the same vein, the locker room is like an infirmary in this variant of the war epic.)
Any Given Sunday is the work of a director with a deep understanding and appreciation of his subject, regardless of how repugnant it can be at times. It's a film made for football fans by one, but Stone’s examination of the extracurricular exploits of players and coaches stands out as the film’s most compelling component.
The focus remains on pro football's extravagance. Stone, who wrote Scarface, revisits the decadent Miami two decades later; it's a fitting backdrop for a film about the decadence of a sport and the life that sport encourages. Once Willie Beamen finally attains the triumph he feels he’s been robbed of, the fame goes straight to his head, inflating his self-importance to mask the vulnerability that eats away at him. Additionally, when running back Julian Washington (LL Cool J) isn't losing games by selfishly attempting to pad his stats for incentives, he's bitching about endorsements and doing cocaine off groupie breasts with wide receiver Jimmy Sanderson (Bill Bellamy).
In professional sports, wanton behavior is dismissed as collateral damage. In the world of Any Given Sunday, morality is similarly an afterthought.
When Beamen begins wearing his arrogance like a uniform and slams his team's defense during a party at Luther "Shark" Lavay’s (Lawrence Taylor) house, the vengeful linebacker saws his car in half. Amazingly, no one acts as if this is completely fucking insane. (Then again, what would you expect from someone with a mouth full of gold who wears a caped du-rag under his helmet?) The parties are loud, the clothes are louder, and women are treated like the trophies players hope to hoist in the air come season’s end.
Although this exploration of the gratuitous is dark, there’s also room for amusement. Even as a drama, Any Given Sunday finds humor in the absurd. Willie Beamen vomiting before being thrust into the chaos (and on subsequent occasions) was funny before Donovan McNabb allegedly did it in Super Bowl XXXIX. And the young QB's persona only grows more ridiculous from there. Who could forget "My Name Is Willie," the hilarious video that parodies and builds on Deion Sanders’ real-life song, "Must Be the Money"?
That music video is Any Given Sunday's most lasting visual, but it has nothing to do with why Any Given Sunday is still relevant today. Rather, that's attributed to the crisis of ethics the NFL is currently experiencing.
The 2014 NFL season has been ugly. Bad press has been rampant. By the season’s midway point, two prominent players—Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson—had been benched for the remainder of the year due to abhorrent off-the-field activities. Worse, the handling of the Rice incident, in which he assaulted his then-fiancee (and current wife), forced the public to question the NFL’s values in regard to how much they knew about the situation. Those 2014 blemishes, coupled with a federal judge’s approval of a multimillion-dollar settlement between the league and families of former players who've suffered lasting effects due to concussions, have left the league with an image problem that commissioner-turned-annoying-principal Roger Goodell can't repair.
Similar issues and concerns were present in Any Given Sunday, as team physician Dr. Harvey Mandrake (James Woods) purposely neglected players' injuries to make the Sharks more competitive. Worse, he was implored to do so by team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), who was more concerned with economics than football—and her own prosperity above anyone else's well-being. The film placed an incriminating spotlight on the fashion in which teams joyride players, then ditch them when they run out of gas. It exposed the shrouded ugliness of professional sports, and that penchant for dragging the hideous nature of man out into the open is Stone’s forte.
By no means is Any Given Sunday a great film. It’s running time is nearly the duration of an NFL game, and it's as loaded with cliches (the blatant "athlete as soldier" analogy; Al Pacino's famous "inches" speech) as it is frenetic football sequences and superfluity. But it excels at making viewers flies-on-the-wall in the lives of players, coaches, and management, revealing how the game doesn’t end when the final whistle blows.
Spectators love scandal as much as they do the thrill of the game, and Stone is cognizant of that. The things depicted in Any Given Sunday had always plagued the NFL, but Stone, with his love for the gory details, snatched the curtain open in 1999. His depiction of hyper-violence and corruption remains as accurate as a missile-like pass from Aaron Rodgers.
With Any Given Sunday, Stone created something as captivating and flawed as the world of pro football itself.
Julian Kimble loves football, if you couldn’t tell. Follow him on Twitter here.