Game of Inches

Oliver Stone is a terrific filmmaker who rarely touches upon a subject—whether it’s American history, rock and roll, television, finance, recreational drugs—without making you confront some pretty inconvenient truths along the way. Any Given Sunday—his epic treatment of professional American football—is no different, despite the fact that for much of its length, it’s a full-throated celebration of the good, bad and ugly sides of the sport. War is hell, but in this movie, you get the feeling that whoever said that probably never played on the gridiron.

The story involves Tony D’Amato, the long-time head coach of the Miami Sharks, a fictional football team in a fictional football league. The team is falling on hard times, and D’Amato is locking antlers with a young owner who is looking to move the team from Miami and boot D’Amato along the way. The star quarterback’s best years are behind him, and when he is injured late in the season, an unproven third-stringer must take a leadership position for which he has ample talent, but not maturity. An unethical medical staff has the players hooked on painkillers so they can play despite their injuries, and a star defensive tackle who is one bad hit away from paralysis or death. Much like his players, all D’Amato has is this game; he has sacrificed just about every other aspect of his life to it.

But these are just the difficulties of regular season football, the movies tells us, and we watch as the Sharks struggle to get their mojo back and make it into the playoffs. Stone films the movie’s numerous game sequences like he’s taken over NFL films, capturing the slo-mo epic feel that makes you think that every 10-yard touchdown run is somehow saving Western civilization. But he also uses jarring camera work and editing to portray the brutality of the game, with players destroying each other with every hit. Some of them are just hard transfers of kinetic energy. Some of them are players savaging each other on purpose or by accident, making this game seem more gladiatorial than we’d ever gather by watching it from the stands or on the screen.

The story mainly focuses around the rise, fall and rise again of the young quarterback Willie Beamen, as D’Amato tries to steer the kid toward success without hitting the usual pitfalls that sudden fame and fortune bring. D’Amato is only as successful in mentoring his young player as the game will ever let him be, though, and Beamen falls prey to his ego anyway. The infighting that results threatens to derail the entire team until D’Amato gives an epic speech right before their last game of the season brings Beamen—and the entire team—around. D’Amato channels the mythic energy that drives professional sports in general, and American football in particular: You’re not hurt; you can play on. We are not outmatched; we can win. We are more than a team; we are brothers. We don’t just play hard; we give our very lives for victory.

D’Amato’s speech is pretty awesome. And as he gives it, you see his payers get so amped up that when the Sharks win the climactic game, it feels like more than a tidy conclusion from a sympathetic writer. Every player who has something to prove goes out and proves it to themselves, their teammates, and the world. It doesn’t really matter that in the epilogue, we find out that the Sharks were promptly knocked out of the playoffs they fought so hard to reach. What mattered was that one game at that one time. Life is a game of inches, D’Amato tells his players, and every inch matters. Every game matters. And he’s right.

But that’s not why this speech is Any Given Sunday’s moment of truth for me. The physical toll of the game is a major theme of the movie. The players might love the game, and it might be their only avenue to a better life, but it comes at a very high cost. In 1999, when this movie came out, the NFL was still openly downplaying the risk of concussion to its players and expecting the public to believe it. But Stone knew the score, and so did everybody else. This game ruins its players, but we don’t care because we just love it too goddamned much to acknowledge what it is that we’re supporting. D’Amato’s players are no different. At one point, the Sharks’ aging quarterback, who can feel the effects of his long career in his bones, discusses retirement with his wife, who browbeats him into playing regardless of the pain. How dare he even think of quitting? At another point, we see the team doctor treat the issue of player health like how Ford treated its infamous Pinto recall. And at another point, we see that critically injured defensive tackle literally beg to make one more play—knowing it could easily kill him—to secure a huge financial bonus. When he leaves the game on a stretcher, he does it with a smile.

The big truth of the movie isn’t that the game destroys its players. We have known that all along. No, the truth of the movie is that the game destroys its players, and we still love it despite that fact. We have decided that the highs and lows it delivers, and the way it plays to our own mythos of victory and defeat, are worth the personal cost of its disposable heroes. D’Amato knows it. The owner knows it. The doctor knows it. The media knows it. The players know it. The fans know it.

And on any given Sunday, you know it, too.

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