From the guy that brought you Rudy, Hoosiers, and all the subliminal linkage you now carry between sports and feelings comes a brand new chapter in the beautiful genre of dramatic sports film. In My All American writer and director Angelo Pizzo recounts the tragic legend of 1969 Texas Longhorns safety Freddie Steinmark, an archetype of under dog, choir boy, and hero all wrapped into one larger-than-stature character.
The film plucks on all the emotional chords that have come to be expected of a sports movie in the post-Remember the Titans (2000) era but with much more veracity. While tears during sports movies are steadily becoming the norm, Pizzo’s version of Steinmark’s tale is, unsurprisingly, visceral-bordering-savage in its unfiltered emotion. Up-and-coming actor Finn Wittrock exudes calmness while allowing the steady boil of passion underlying Steinmark’s demeanor to approach the surface from the first time Freddie touches the ball to the last,
But while Wittrock is excellent in his craft, one of the highest achievements is the on-screen chemistry he shares with female lead Sara Bolger. Their characters’ relationship is critical to the drama of the film, and it comes across as beautifully as any star-crossed teen lovers ever could. They are almost sickeningly adorable together, highlighting the best of dream-driven young love. Their shared scenes present heavy themes of future and what-might-be, which when reflected on in the movie’s emotional climax is enough to bring any hulking DT (defensive tackle for non-football types) to pawing at misty eyes.
Their relationship is the baseline upon which Pizzo builds his crescendos and decrescendos, providing sporadic moments of elation and sorrow. Contrary to convention, this sports-centric story is not full-tilt towards the final game, but rather celebrates the aggregate heroism of its focal character throughout his development from undersized high school player to collegiate captain. This is a phenomal stylistic choice by Pizzo as it intentionally cultivates the fullness of Steinmark’s character as a young man rather than focus on him solely as an athletic champion or victor. Despite this, it must be admitted that the similarities of the stories does make My All American feel jarringly Rudy-esque at times. Roughly sixteen minutes in Freddie is heroically hoisted onto his teammates shoulders following a game winning play, possibly an homage to the director’s previous work or an adherence to the convention that he helped create?
Either way, this film is a fantastic showcase of the best of what a sports movie can be. Cinematically, the film is thoroughly beautiful from the sweeping opening shot of the Darrel K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to the in-close shots shared between the lead couple. Yet while the craft of the film could be expected from someone’s first time in the directorial chair, it is nonetheless lovingly accomplished. Suffering from a few rare instances of predictable and pedestrian dialogue, at times the story feels bloated with too many events surrounding Freddie’s journey, inevitably miring down the film’s pace and resulting in a (ever-so-slightly) meandering 2-hour runtime.
However, all of those details feel critical to developing the fullness of who Freddie Steinmark was and what makes his memory so viral and potent. This movie, perhaps more than any other sports movie, develops its lead character as an excellent human being as much if not moreso than as an excellent athlete. What makes Freddie Steinmark so connectable to the audience is not his otherworldly talent, but his dedication to his dream and his family, his beautifully honest faith, and his unwavering optimism and positivity aided by Wittrock’s realistic charm towards the camera. It calls to account the underlying idea presiding in American athletics, an inverse correlation between athletic achievement and authentic humanity wherein one cannot co-exist with the other.
Most importantly this film is a reassurance of what sports and athletes can and should be. During the modern era of fractured and flawed celebrities and athletes, where suspicion is raised not for the possibility of nefarious deeds but for the lack thereof, this film is a lacking and critical rebuttal. Freddie Steinmark’s altruism throughout the story’s drama and tragedy is almost jarring in light of modern athletes and practices; his self-sacrifice and dedication to his team in juxtaposition to that same rare trait displayed by modern professional athletes is like cold water to the face; his unwavering faith proves that it is possible to be both devout and authentic as a young adult. While the film does not deal much with faith, it is evident that it is the hallmark of Freddie’s personality. Like an underground reservoir, a presence known but not always seen, Freddie’s authentic expression of faith is the ground line for the calm current of his character.
It has been suggested that the era of legends, those competitors that transcend their sport as not only a great player but also a pinnacle of what it means to be a champion caliber human being, is slowly fading away. As a praying man, I hope that Freddie Steinmark would pray it goes not quietly away. I hope he would pray that this depiction of his life can reassure its audience that the intersection of sports and humanity need not be defined by eye-grabbing scandal headlines and arrogant boasting. Freddie Steinmark was undoubtedly the mold by which heroes are poured. His altruism, positivity, and heroic resolve resonates throughout Pizzo’s treatment of his legendary story. As is the case with any great sports movie, the sport in My All American is the vehicle by which the human element of emotion is manifested. Pizzo delivers a true expression of victory and tragedy that resonates with both the competitive edge and raw hearts of the audience. It is a phenomenal treatment of a legendary story which transcends its athletic setting to rest within the heart.