20 Years Later: Oliver Stone Tackled Football in ‘Any Given Sunday’

by Stephen Silver
Published: Last Updated on

Following a decade in which he’d made controversial, incendiary movies about the Kennedy assassination, the life of Richard Nixon, and a pair of serial killers, director Oliver Stone closed off the 1990s with another epic movie, about…professional football. 

Any Given Sunday arrived on December 20, 1999. Stone and screenwriter John Logan based the film on the novel On Any Given Sunday by 1960s NFL player Pat Toomay, although he also incorporated two other scripts about the game that were floating around Hollywood at the time, leading to a complicated Writers Guild dispute (which was resolved by Stone and Logan received “written by” credit, with Logan and Daniel Pyne getting “story by” credit.) 

Stone, as is his wont, had sharp things to say about the game of football — some of which were already dated by 1999, but some that continue to have salience two decades later. 

The film is set in a bizarro version of the NFL, described in the film as a rival league, and is centered around the fictitious franchise known as the Miami Sharks. Their coach is Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), a legend of the game who’s aging and possibly on the outs. The owner, possibly seeking to push him out, is Christina (Cameron Diaz), who inherited the team from her late father. LL Cool J is the team’s running back, while Charlton Heston (in one of his last roles) portrays the league commissioner. 

Meanwhile, Dennis Quaid plays the team’s longtime quarterback — an older Joe Montana type who is gradually replaced by the younger, flashier Willie Beamon (Jamie Foxx). Various NFL legends, including Jim Brown and Lawrence Taylor, also have parts in the film. 

Any Given Sunday makes some fascinating points about the sometimes fraught relationships between coaches and owners (who are mostly white) and players (who are primarily black), a dynamic that would charge to the forefront nearly two decades later with the Colin Kaepernick controversy. We also see a sleazy team doctor (James Woods) drugging up players with little regard for their health, the sort of thing that wasn’t much in the sports conversation in the ’90s, but would emerge big time years later. 

Stone also got very creative when it came to filming football, doing so in a way that looked absolutely nothing like NFL game broadcasts at the time. One game sequence is set entirely in the mud, while other gridiron contests come across more like action movies. 

However, the film is perhaps most famous for Pacino’s “inches” locker room speech: 

Yet, there are other things that sort of betray that Any Given Sunday is based in part on the memoirs of a player who had played 30 years earlier. 

A major conflict between Pacino’s coach and his team’s owner is that the coach wants to run a running-based offense, while the owner favors the pass-happy offensive system pioneered by the offensive coordinator (Aaron Eckhardt) who she’s brought in as his probable successor. The run vs. pass debate wasn’t really a thing in 1999 — the West Coast offense ruled at the time, and had for years — nor was it modern or cutting-edge at the time to emphasize throwing the ball. 

Also, a subplot in which Beaman starts changing the plays in the huddle is the sort of thing that the head coach would catch on to the first time it happened, as opposed to weeks later. 

As sportswriter/film critic Will Leitch pointed out last year, it’s something of a surprise coming from a filmmaker as leftist as Stone that Any Given Sunday seems to buy into a conservative viewpoint about football, built around idealization of a past version of the game in which tough old coaches are listened to, and players aren’t so assertive and rebellious. This reactionary attitude is still all over the place in football, but it is still odd to see Stone leaning that way. 

Any Given Sunday

There’s also some weird stuff with the character’s ages. Pacino was 59 at the time of the film’s release, which isn’t exactly unusually old for a professional football coach, while Jamie Foxx played the young hotshot quarterback even though he was 32. Quaid, in the position veteran quarterbacks usually face in their mid-30s, was 45 at the time, while Lawrence Taylor played an active player, even though he was years out of the league at that point. And there has never in the history of American sports been a team owner who was a beautiful, 27-year-old woman. 

Stone’s film was also part of the evolution of sports films, in terms of the movies concentrating on non-players. Any Given Sunday was followed a decade later by Moneyball, the first movie ever made in which the hero was the general manager of a team; and a few years after that came 2014’s Draft Day, an entirely NFL-approved production (also with a hero GM) which doubled down even further on the old ‘football men know best’ ethos. 

As for Stone? He hasn’t had such a great two decades. After Any Given Sunday there was World Trade Center, which was well-made but didn’t seem to have much of his voice in it. His movie about George W. Bush shed no light beyond conventional wisdom. He made a Wall Street sequel that was entertaining but unnecessary, and his movie about Edward Snowden was far inferior to the documentary about the same events that had come out two years earlier. And he’s interspersed those with embarrassingly laudatory documentaries about Fidel Castro and Vladmir Putin. 

Does Oliver Stone have one more great film in him? I certainly hope that he does. Because he’s one of those filmmakers who always has something to say.

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