As we ponder which bowl games to watch tomorrow, let's salute the game of football: not just the sheer excitement of it, but the values it promotes. Fundamentally, to survive on a football field, it helps to be big, tough and fast, but you'll get nowhere without brains, instinct, and the ability to work with and rely on others -- the very same attributes we need to navigate our own lives.
Countless films have explored the inherent drama and heroic quality of organized sports in general, and football in particular. In fact, Hollywood has turned the feel-good sports movie into a tried-and-true formula, cranking out numerous retread features that inevitably include tough but fair coaches leading underdog teams to unexpected victory. But amidst all the strictly average titles lie a few bona-fide winners, movies that resonate with fans and non-fans alike, movies that use the world of football to tell more universal stories.
For whatever reason, the 1970s were a golden age for football movies, starting with a made-for-TV entry that took the country by storm, the indelible "Brian's Song" (1971), starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. Based on Gale Sayers's autobiography, "I Am Third," "Song" tells the true story of a friendship born through football that ends tragically. When gifted black running back Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) joins the Chicago Bears in 1965, he finds himself competing against a less talented but equally determined white player named Brian Piccolo (James Caan). Soon, this potential rivalry turns into a close bond, as Piccolo helps Sayers weather an injury, and Sayers later returns the favor when Brian is stricken with cancer. Piccolo's gutsy yet graceful attitude toward the disease ultimately inspires Sayers to achieve his full potential. The craggy, always reliable Jack Warden co-stars as Bears Coach George Halas, and Shelly Fabares (from TV's "Donna Reed Show") is also solid as Brian's steadfast wife, Joy. This poignant, inspirational tale unfolds over just 75 minutes, but keep the Kleenex handy, as few remain unmoved by the end.
Three years later, director Robert Aldrich brought a lighter touch to the game in his wildly entertaining prison comedy, "The Longest Yard." Prison Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert), a football fanatic, lives for the closely-watched annual match-up between his guards, led by vicious Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter), and the prisoners' team, helmed by cocky inmate Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds). The ruthless warden offers Crewe a chance at parole if he helps throw the game, but is freedom worth the price of betraying his teammates? Though "Yard" is sharp and involving throughout, don't miss the culminating game sequence, which spans a whopping 47 minutes. It's a tribute to Aldrich and editor Michael Luciano that the time flies by in this salty, colorful, smile-inducing film. Also, Reynolds and Albert were never better.
Reverting back to the NFL, Ted Kotcheff's revealing "North Dallas Forty" (1979) uncovers the less admirable realities of pro football as big business. Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) is a battle-scarred veteran receiver who's been sacked too many times, and needs a variety of medications to deal with chronic pain. His buddy, quarterback Max (Mac Davis), is better at dodging the massive defensemen rushing him, but he too senses his good days are numbered. "North" depicts players as commodities to be replaced when their broken bodies give out, coaches as bullying nursemaids, and owners as greedy, manipulative tyrants. To his credit, Kotcheff isn't heavy-handed in his approach, leavening the film with plenty of wit and warmth. Nolte is superb playing the aching, rebellious Phil, while singer Davis exhibits natural acting chops as Max. Sterling support comes from Steve Forrest and Dabney Coleman (as owners), G.D. Spradlin and Charles Durning (as coaches), and Bo Svenson ( hilarious as an unhinged defensive player on the Dallas team).
Fast-forward to 1992, and "Jerry Maguire", in which Tom Cruise plays a sports-agent who's seen better days. Undermined and outflanked by a ruthless colleague, Jerry goes solo, with a solo client: pro footballer Rod Tidwell (Gooding), who believes he needs his head examined, and whose mantra to Jerry seems unending: "Show me the money!" Just when things seem at their bleakest, Jerry meets Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellwegger) and her young son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki). Once Dorothy becomes Jerry's assistant, things begin to look up on all fronts, and we have the makings of an authentic David Versus Goliath story. Cameron Crowe's directorial breakthrough (he also scripted) is an infectious comedy-romance buoyed by a star-making turn from Zellwegger, and an Oscar-winning comic performance from Gooding. Young Lipnicki is pretty appealing too, and all provide Cruise with plenty of opportunities to shine. This razor-sharp yet very human satire ends up really warming the heart.
The following year brought yet another triumphant football movie based on fact. Directed by David Anspaugh, who'd earlier helmed "Hoosiers", the rousing "Rudy" recounts the incredible odyssey of young Rudy Ruetigger ( played by a pitch-perfect Sean Astin), who from an early age resolves to overcome all obstacles to play football at Notre Dame. What Rudy lacks in build (he is short), intellect (his grades are marginal) and support (his blue-collar family have no money), he compensates for in unflagging drive and perseverance. Rudy's rugged path to achieving his dream is an admirable, uplifting journey. Ned Beatty (as Rudy's humble dad), Charles Dutton and Jason Miller round out a top-notch cast in this skillfully-executed crowd-pleaser.
On the documentary front, "The Last Game" (2003) relates a rich human story while taking us into the surprisingly ruthless, disciplined world of high school football in Doylestown, Pa. There, Coach Mike Pettine, Sr. is a local legend, having guided the winning Central Bucks Team for over thirty years, and now leading his squad in their third straight undefeated season. In the midst of this, Pettine must weigh when and whether to retire, while preparing his team to meet arch-rivals North Penn, coached by his own son, Mike Pettine, Jr. This riveting, highly personal film fascinates on several levels: the brutal sense of competition felt even at the high school level (Coach Pettine is no pussycat); the senior Pettine's struggle to decide whether it's time to close his unbeatable run as coach; and finally, the unusual, awkward dynamic of father and son going head-to-head as rival coaches. Surprisingly gripping and intense, "The Last Game" is one match-up you won't soon forget.
Finally, I end with an old chestnut: the Marx Brothers's riotously funny "Horse Feathers" (1932), a movie that's been slightly overshadowed by the team's truly brilliant follow-up the very next year, "Duck Soup". The prior picture may not scale quite the same heights comedically, but it sure comes close. Groucho plays Quincy Adams Wagstaff, an affable though fraudulent academic who gets named head of Huxley College, a formerly revered seat of higher learning that, under Wagstaff's leadership, turns into a fine place for any students majoring in bedlam. The most important things at Huxley are girls, drinking at the local speakeasy, and winning the football game, not necessarily in that order. Since vice is rampant, significant bets are taken on the outcome of Huxley's all-important game against arch-rival Darwin University. Lots of football rules and etiquette are broken as the two opposing sides work to guarantee a favorable outcome. All these years later, "Horse Feathers" remains a rip-snorting delight, with all four brothers in top form. Don't miss that concluding game sequence...
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