'My All American': Film Review
Angelo Pizzo, screenwriter of 'Hoosiers' and 'Rudy,' takes a shot at directing.
Screenwriter Angelo Pizzo is not prolific. Counting his latest, he has penned one produced movie in each of the last four decades. Two of those — Rudy and the excellent Hoosiers — have entered the pantheon of sports cinema, but his first outing as director, My All American, is more likely to go the way of his third, the soccer dud The Game of Their Lives. (All three of Pizzo's previous films were directed by David Anspaugh.) A deeply old-fashioned telling of a true college football story, it will fare best with fans of the University of Texas Longhorns, especially those who appreciate Aaron Eckhart's sturdy portrayal of beloved coach Darrell Royal.
Royal was the coach who in 1967 offered a scholarship to Freddie Steinmark, an undersized Denver kid who, despite his remarkable speed and unflagging spirit, couldn't attract the attention of any other schools. Steinmark was killed by bone cancer shortly after his standout tenure with the team, a story well known to longtime Longhorn fans, and in a 2010-set framing device, Pizzo makes it clear to newbies that this is a tale of a promising player who was unable to enjoy the greatness he deserved: Freddie was never named an All-American, Royal admits to a young Daily Texan reporter interviewing him, but "he was my All-American."
After this intro, so stiffly directed it threatens to kill the film before it begins, we leap back to the 1960s, where Finn Wittrock plays Freddie as a teen whose straight-arrow earnestness and work ethic are untainted by any kind of human failing. One of the very few lively moments in the picture hints at the possibility that Freddie, who attended mass every morning, might have harbored just a shred of lust or pride: As two girls from school stalk him, watching with binoculars as the star athlete sprints up and down a hill with his shirt off, he notices, jogs confidently over to them, and asks one out as if there were nothing strange about being sweaty and half-naked. Linda (Sarah Bolger) is too flustered to reply and her friend has to confirm the details for her. Here too, we see the only shred of interesting personality in a character who, for the rest of the film, will be the kind of perfectly steadfast girlfriend one sees in biopics of the '50s.
Pizzo finds nearly no drama in Freddie's path from high school to college ball: A stern and achievement-minded father created the boy's work ethic long before we meet him, and it pays off reliably here, with Freddie never questioning Dad or himself. Once he makes it to U.T., his ascent feels predestined.
Freddie meets quarterback James Street, who is played by the real Street's son Juston Street (not to be confused with the doomed Friday Night Lights QB Jason Street). And after the team suffers a few "trainwreck" defeats, Street and Steinmark help get the season on course. The shooting and cutting of gridiron scenes are lackluster, and the storytelling is certainly not (as in FNL) the sort that can get a non-sports fan invested in the outcome.
The most engaging thing onscreen is the connection between player and coach. In this telling, Royal feels a strong kinship with a squeaky-clean youth who, like himself, still gets a haircut every week. The bond is not especially well exploited, but it lends weight to hospital scenes where, after playing several games on a leg that was giving him trouble, Steinmark learns he has an enormous tumor and must have his leg amputated. Royal shows tremendous respect for the spirit Steinmark displays afterward, ignoring doctors' orders and getting mobile on crutches in time to watch his team's Cotton Bowl victory from the sidelines. But for My All American, this never-say-die determination is less inspiring than inevitable.
Production companies: Anthem Procuctions, Paul Schiff Productions
Cast: Finn Wittrock, Aaron Eckhart, Sarah Bolger, Robin Tunney, Michael Reilly Burke, Rhett Terrell, Juston Street
Director-Screenwriter: Angelo Pizzo
Producer: Paul Schiff
Executive producers: Michael Beugg, Ben Brigham, Carl Mazzocone
Director of photography: Frank G. DeMarco
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Dan Zimmerman
Music: John Paesano
Casting directors: Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich
PG, 117 minutes