This isn’t an inspirational football movie so much as it’s the highlights reel from one. It’s got all the rah-rah moments — literally: there are girls in cheerleaders’ costumes tossing pompoms — but none of the mountains to climb or tough rows to hoe or any of the hard stuff. Whatever actual drama there was in the life of the real University of Texas football player Freddie Steinmark — this is based on the nonfiction book Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story, by Jim Dent — has been excised from My All American.
From his path as a sports star in high school in Colorado in the late 1960s through his years at UT into the early 70s, there isn’t a genuine obstacle that Freddie (Finn Wittrock: The Big Short, Unbroken) faces, as far as we can see here. Oh, sure, people talk about obstacles — like how, say, he’s too small to play college ball — but we see no evidence of any problems in Freddie’s life as it appears on the screen. Girls adore him… though of course he’s got that one special girl (Sarah Bolger: The Lazarus Effect, From Up on Poppy Hill) who adores him even more, and who appears to have no personality whatsoever, and no desire of her own that isn’t about worshipping Freddie. The UT coach (Aaron Eckhart: I, Frankenstein, Olympus Has Fallen) offers him a football scholarship two minutes after they meet; but even if you are a fan of the game, you won’t see anything here that explains what is supposedly so extraordinary about how Freddie plays. And there are never any hurt feelings among his UT teammates, not even when a superstar player get demoted in favor of an underclassman. Everyone is just super nice and understanding.
This may have been the reality. But there is no drama in it. Real life doesn’t always make a good story.
The team had a terrible season, the coach roars, but we don’t see it. When the coach pushes Freddie — in ways we’re left to imagine because we do not see them dramatized — he rises to those challenges, or so people keep saying. Freddie is like magic. He’s his own manic pixie dream boy.
He is dull as hell.
I get why first-time director Angelo Pizzo — who also wrote the script, as he did for sports flicks Rudy and Hoosiers — believes Freddie is worth telling a story about. But just telling us a dude is amazing doesn’t cut it. Ya have to show us why he’s amazing.
I think I’ve discovered the worst sort of hagiography: when it’s about someone you’ve never even heard of, and who hasn’t done anything worthy of sainthood.
And then, just when you think this has all been a setup to do something dreadful to this golden boy, that’s exactly what happens. I won’t reveal the details, in case you don’t know what happened to the real Freddie Steinmark — and as even the film itself admits, you probably don’t, unless you’ve actually played football at UT — but suffice to say that it comes down to an appalling conclusion: that football is worth more than anything else. No matter what happens, as long as someone can say, “We would not be national champions if you were not out on that field,” everything else is cool.
But that is absolutely not true. Even the most fanatical enthusiasts of the sport, surely, must concede that there may be one or two things that are more important than football. You know, like oxygen. Like, breathing. But there is no evidence of even that little bit of reason here. No evidence of a little bit of concession to human needs. And so My All American ends up the opposite of “inspirational.” Under its veneer of near-religious devotion to the game, it’s terrifying.