Some of the Greatest Football Films of All-Time, As Reviewed By Roger Ebert
By: The Football Girl | Posted: April 04, 2013
Sad news today as legendary film critic Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. Ebert’s reviews influenced a variety of movie genres from westerns to biopics to sports. We thought the best way to pay homage on a site such as this was to relive some our favorite football films of all-time through his Ebert's own words. R.I.P.
All reviews come direct from Ebert’s site within the Chicago Sun-times.
Rudy (Three and a Half Stars)
BY ROGER EBERT / October 13, 1993
“It has a freshness and an earnestness that gets us involved, and by the end of the film we accept Rudy's dream as more than simply sports sentiment.”
Look at you. You're 5-foot-nothin' and you weigh a hundred and nothin', and with hardly a speck of athletic ability.
So says Fortune, a groundskeeper at the Notre Dame stadium, to Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger Jr., whose dream is to play for the Fighting Irish. Rudy is not insane. He doesn't expect to start. It would fulfill his lifetime dream simply to wear the uniform and get on the field for one play during the regular season, and get his name in the tiniest print in the school archives.
Almost everyone except Fortune thinks his dream is foolish.
Rudy comes from a working-class family in Joliet, where his father (Ned Beatty) joins his family, his teachers, his neighbors and just about everybody else in assuring him that he lacks not only the brawn but also the brains to make it into a top school like Notre Dame.
But Rudy persists. And although his story reads, in outline, like an anthology of cliches from countless old rags-to-riches sports movies, "Rudy" persists, too. It has a freshness and an earnestness that gets us involved, and by the end of the film we accept Rudy's dream as more than simply sports sentiment. It's a small but powerful illustration of the human spirit.
The movie was directed by David Anspaugh, who directed another great Indiana sports movie, "Hoosiers," in 1986. Both films show an attention to detail, and a preference for close observation of the characters rather than sweeping sports sentiment. In "Rudy," Anspaugh finds a serious, affecting performance by Sean Astin, the erstwhile teen idol, as a quiet, determined kid who knows he doesn't have all the brains in the world, but is determined to do the best he can with the hand he was dealt.
To start with, he can't get into Notre Dame. He doesn't have the grades. But he's accepted across the street at Holy Cross, where an understanding priest (the benevolent Robert Prosky) offers advice and encouragement. Finally Rudy is accepted by Notre Dame, one of the few remaining big football schools that still has tryouts for "walk-ons" - kids without starring high school careers or athletic scholarships.
It's the mid-1970s. The Notre Dame coach is Ara Parseghian (Jason Miller). He doesn't know what to make of this squirt who is happy to play on a practice team and offer his body up week after week so that the big Irish linemen can batter and bruise him on their way to a Saturday victory. Rudy isn't really even good enough to be the lowliest sub, but he has great heart (something that is observed perhaps a little too often in the dialogue).
The movie is not cluttered up with extraneous subplots. A hometown girlfriend (Lili Taylor) is left behind, and for four years Rudy turns into a grind, studying nonstop to make his grades, and sometimes sleeping on a cot in the groundskeeper's room because he doesn't have money for rent. His father continues to think he's crazy. But Rudy shows him.
Underdog movies are a durable genre and never go out of style. They're fairly predictable, in the sense that few movie underdogs ever lose in the big last scene. The notion is enormously appealing, however, because everyone can identify in one way or another.
In "Rudy," Astin's performance is so self-effacing, so focused and low-key, that we lose sight of the underdog formula and begin to focus on this dogged kid who won't quit. And the last big scene is an emotional powerhouse, just the way it's supposed to be.
Any Given Sunday (Three Stars)
BY ROGER EBERT / December 22, 1999
“It's as if Stone wanted to pump up the volume to conceal the lack of on-field substance.”
Oliver Stone's ``Any Given Sunday'' is a smart sports movie almost swamped by production overkill. The movie alternates sharp and observant dramatic scenes with MTV-style montages and incomprehensible sports footage. It's a miracle the underlying story survives, but it does.
The story's expose of pro football will not come as news to anyone who follows the game. We learn that veteran quarterbacks sometimes doubt themselves, that injured players take risks to keep playing, that team doctors let them, that overnight stardom can turn a green kid into a jerk, that ESPN personalities are self-promoters, that owners' wives drink, that their daughters think they know all about football and that coaches practice quiet wisdom in the midst of despair. We are also reminded that all big games are settled with a crucial play in the closing seconds.
These insights are not startling, but Stone and his actors give them a human face, and the film's dialogue scenes are effective. Al Pacino, comfortable and convincing as Tony D'Amato, a raspy-voiced curmudgeon, tries to coach the Miami Sharks past a losing streak and into the playoffs, and the movie surrounds him with first-rate performances. We're reminded that very little movie material is original until actors transform it from cliches into particulars.
Jamie Foxx joins Pacino in most of the heavy lifting, as Willie Beamen, a third-string quarterback in a game where the two guys above him have been carried off on stretchers. He's so nervous, he throws up in the huddle (``that's a first,'' D'Amato observes), but then catches fire and becomes an overnight sensation. In a broken-field role that requires him to be unsure and vulnerable, then cocky and insufferable, then political, then repentant, Foxx doesn't step wrong.
The team's original owner was a sports legend who had a handshake deal with D'Amato, but with the owner's death, control has passed to his daughter (Cameron Diaz), whose mother (Ann-Margret) is never far from a martini. These two characters are written as women who will never really be accepted in a man's game. The mother knows it, but her daughter still doesn't. Diaz hopes to get rich by moving the franchise; her mother has kept the world of pro football under close observation for many years and has not found much to inspire her.
Dennis Quaid plays the veteran quarterback whose injury sets the plot into motion--and he, too, is seen in an unexpected light, as an on-field leader privately haunted by insecurity. There's a stunning moment when he considers retirement and is ferociously challenged by his wife (Lauren Holly), who won't hear of it; he complains, ``ever since college, people have been telling me what to do.'' Even at 170 minutes, ``Any Given Sunday'' barely manages to find room for some of its large cast. James Woods and Matthew Modine clash as team doctors with different attitudes toward life-threatening conditions, and pro veteran Lawrence Taylor has a strong supporting role as a player who wants to keep playing long enough to earn his bonus, even at the risk of his life. And there are lots of other familiar faces: Charlton Heston, Aaron Eckhart, Bill Bellamy, Jim Brown, LL Cool J, John C. McGinley, Lela Rochon, even Johnny Unitas as an opposing coach.
The reason their characters aren't better developed is that so much of the film's running time is lost to smoke and mirrors. There isn't really a single sequence of sports action in which the strategy of a play can be observed and understood from beginning to end. Instead, Stone uses fancy editing on montage closeups of colorful uniforms and violent action, with lots of crunching sound effects. Or he tilts his camera up to a football pass, spinning against the sky. This is razzle-dazzle in the editing; we don't get the feeling we're seeing a real game involving these characters.
There's a lot of music, though, and even a fairly unconvincing MTV music video for Foxx to star in. It's as if Stone wanted to pump up the volume to conceal the lack of on-field substance. In his films like ``JFK'' and ``Nixon,'' there was a feeling of urgent need to get everything in; we felt he had lots more to tell us and would if he could. ``Any Given Sunday'' feels stretched out, as if the story needed window dressing. It's as if the second unit came back with lots of full-frame shots of anonymous football players plowing into one another in closeup, and Stone and his editors thought they could use that to mask their lack of substantial, strategic, comprehensible sports action footage. Adding to the distraction is the fact that the outcome of every single play matches the dramatic needs of the script.
It's a close call here. I guess I recommend the movie because the dramatic scenes are worth it. Pacino has some nice heart-to-hearts with Quaid and Foxx, and the psychology of the veteran coach is well-captured in the screenplay by Stone and John Logan. But if some studio executive came along and made Stone cut his movie down to two hours, I have the strangest feeling it wouldn't lose much of substance and might even play better.
Jerry Maguire (Three Stars)
By Roger Ebert Dec 13, 1996
“…there are so many subplots that ``Jerry Maguire'' seems too full: Less might have been more.”
There are a couple of moments in ``Jerry Maguire'' when you want to hug yourself with delight. One comes when a young woman stands up in an office where a man has just been fired because of his ethics, and says, yes, she'll follow him out of the company. The other comes when she stands in her kitchen and tells her older sister that she really, truly, loves a man with her whole heart and soul.
Both of those moments involve the actress Renee Zellweger, whose lovability is one of the key elements in a movie that starts out looking cynical and quickly becomes a heartwarmer.
The man she follows, and loves, is Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise), a high-powered pro sports agent who has so many clients he can't really care about any of them. He spends most of his time as a road warrior, one of those dogged joggers you see in airports, racking up the frequent flyer miles in pursuit of the excellence they read about in pinbrained best-sellers. One night he has a panic attack in a lonely hotel room, and writes a memo titled ``The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business.'' One of the things he thinks is that agents should be less concerned about money and more concerned about their clients. That gets him a standing ovation in the office, but a few days later, when he's fired, he understands why agents do not say those things they think. Maguire stages a grandstand exit (his decision to take along the office goldfish plays awkwardly, however). But when he asks who's walking out with him, only Dorothy, an accountant he's met just once at the airport, stands up and says she believes in him. Dorothy is a widow with a cute little son (maybe just a mite too cute).
She also has an outspoken older sister, played by Bonnie Hunt with her usual exuberance and ironic cheer (she's almost always a delight to watch). The sisters live together in a house where the living room seems to be semipermanently filled by a kvetching self-help group for divorced women, who spend all of their time talking about men. Someone should tell them that resentment is just a way of letting someone else use your mind rent-free.
Only one client doesn't dump Maguire when the agency boots him out. That's Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a wide receiver for Arizona, who resents the crappy waterbed commercials Maguire puts him in, but sticks with him anyway. Rod's wife Marcee (Regina King) is her husband's shrewdest defender and biggest fan, and their marriage is a true love story--in contrast to Maguire's failing engagement to the power-mad Avery Bishop (Kelly Preston).
Avery is soon out of the picture, Dorothy begins to look less like an accountant and more like the most wonderful woman in the world, and under the influence of his ennobling new feelings, Jerry helps Rod learn to play from the heart and not just from the mind and the pocketbook. And somewhere along in there I began to feel that writer-director Cameron Crowe had bitten off more than he really needed to chew. The screenplay knows enough about sports agents to make that the subject of the whole film, and enough about romance, too, but there are so many subplots that ``Jerry Maguire'' seems too full: Less might have been more.
Still, the film is often a delight, especially when Cruise and Zellweger are together on the screen. He plays Maguire with the earnestness of a man who wants to find greatness and happiness in an occupation where only success really counts. She plays a woman who believes in this guy she loves, and reminds us that true love is about idealism. (Remember Franklin McCormick years ago on the all-night radio? ``I love you because of who you are--and who I am when I am with you.'') The actual sports scenes are more predictable (right down to and including the big play that settles the season). But Cuba Gooding Jr., so strong in ``Boyz N the Hood,'' is fine here in a much different role. Finally the movie is about transformation: About two men who learn how to value something more important than money, and about two women who always knew.
Remember The Titans (Three Stars)
BY ROGER EBERT / September 29, 2000
“The movie is heartfelt, yes, and I was moved by it, but it plays safe.”
"Remember the Titans" is a parable about racial harmony, yoked to the formula of a sports movie. Victories over racism and victories over opposing teams alternate so quickly that sometimes we're not sure if we're cheering for tolerance or touchdowns. Real life is never this simple, but then that's what the movies are for--to improve on life, and give it the illusion of form and purpose.
Denzel Washington and Will Patton are the stars, two football coaches, one black, one white, whose lives are linked for a season, even though neither wants it that way. In 1971, a high school in Alexandria, Va., is integrated, and the board brings in Coach Boone (Washington) as the new head coach, replacing Coach Yoast (Patton), who is expected to become his assistant. Yoast understandably does not want to be demoted in the name of affirmative action. Boone doesn't like it, either: He lost his own job in North Carolina, and "I can't do that to this man." But Alexandria's black residents gather on Boone's lawn to cheer for the first black coach at the newly integrated high school, and Boone realizes he has a responsibility. So does Yoast: His white players say they won't play for a black coach, but Yoast doesn't want them to lose college scholarships, so he swallows his pride and agrees to be Boone's assistant, leading the whites back to practice.
All of this is said to be based on life, and no doubt largely is, but life was perhaps harder and more wounding than the film. "Remember the Titans" is not an activist 1970s picture, but more conciliatory in tone. It is more about football than race relations, and it wants us to leave the theater feeling not angry or motivated, but good.
We do. There are true and touching moments in the film, on top of its undeniable entertainment value. I was moved by a scene near the end where an injured white player, who once said he would not play with blacks, now only wants his black "brother" in the hospital room. And there is a delicate series of scenes in which the same white player breaks up with his girlfriend rather than break the bonds he has formed with teammates during an August training camp. Those training camp scenes include the usual identifiable types (the fat kid, the long-haired Californian, the "Rev") who first clash, then bond. It's been seen before, but the director, Boaz Yakin ("Fresh"), brings old situations to new life and carries us along in the current of a skilled popular entertainment. I like the way he shows Boone forcing the blacks and whites to get to know one another.
I admired the way the screenplay, by Gregory Allen Howard, doesn't make Boone noble and Yoast a racist, but shows them both as ambitious and skilled professionals. There are times when Boone treats his players more like Marines than high school kids, and Yoast tells him so. And times when Yoast tries to comfort black players who Boone has chewed out, and Boone accuses him of coddling blacks as he would never coddle his fellow whites.
These scenes are tricky, and Washington and Patton find just the right notes to negotiate them. Washington is gifted at delivering big speeches without sounding portentous or seeming to strain. There's an early morning training run that leads the players to the Gettysburg battlefield, and his remarks there place their experiences in a larger context.
Still, the story sweeps certain obvious questions under the rug: (1) We see that the whites don't want to play with the blacks, and are afraid of losing their starting positions. But what about the blacks? Weren't they in a black high school last year? Aren't they losing their team, too? Aren't some of them going to be replaced by white starters? The movie shows the whites as resentful and possessive but assumes the black players are grateful for the chance to leave their old school and integrate the other team. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. The movie doesn't say.
(2) Since there was certainly an all-black high school in town until this year, there must have been a black coach at that school. What happened to him? Did Coach Boone put him out of work, too? That crowd of cheering blacks on Boone's front lawn--have they so quickly forgotten the team and coach they used to cheer? In the real world, such questions would be what the story was all about. But then we would have an entirely different kind of film. "Remember the Titans" has the outer form of a brave statement about the races in America, but the soul of a sports movie in which everything is settled by the obligatory last play in the last seconds of the championship game. Whether the Titans win or lose has nothing to do with the season they have played and what they were trying to prove. But it has everything to do with the movie's sleight of hand, in which we cheer the closing touchdown as if it is a victory over racism.
The movie is heartfelt, yes, and I was moved by it, but it plays safe. On the soundtrack we hear lyrics like "I've seen fire and I've seen rain" and "Ain't no mountain high enough," but not other lyrics that must also have been heard in Alexandria in 1971, like "We shall overcome."