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Rerun: Six Pigskin Flicks
It's football season.
The following piece originally ran February 12, 2021. It has been re-edited for our new website and contains a new intro for the 2023 NFL Season:
Tonight’s the night - it’s time for the 2023 NFL kick-off. Now, you’ll have Thursday Night Football, Friday Night Lights, College Football Saturday, NFL Sunday, and Monday Night Football. What do you do with yourself the on Tuesday and Wednesday? Watch these football movies!
Brian’s Song (1971)
Based on the real-life relationship between teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers and the bond established when Piccolo discovers that he is dying.
In 1969, as the Chicago Bears were in the midst of a 1–13 run, fullback Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer. He died less than a year later at the age of 26.
In a very quick turnaround, Brian’s Song premiered in 1971 as an ABC Movie of the Week starring now beloved actors James Caan and Billy Dee Williams as his roommate, friend, and fellow running back, Gale Sayers. The film depicts them as best friends, despite their differing races, with Sayers being there for Piccolo up until the end. The movie does exaggerate their friendship:
“Truth be told, Sayers and Piccolo were close during their time together on the Bears — they were the first interracial roommates in NFL history — but not best friends.” Matt Bonesteel, Washington Post
What the movie does get right, however, is Sayers’ extreme respect for Piccolo. When Sayers was awarded the 1970 George S. Halas Courage Award, he dedicated it to Piccolo. The moment is depicted in the film:
“You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. It is mine tonight. It is Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow. . . . I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”
The film has become synonymous with male friendship, camaraderie, and putting differences aside. For this, it has become a classic.
Remember the Titans (2000)
After leading his football team to 15 winning seasons, coach Bill Yoast is demoted and replaced by Herman Boone — tough, opinionated and as different from the beloved Yoast as he could be. The two men learn to overcome their differences and turn a group of hostile young men into champions.
Is this movie extraordinarily simple? Obviously. We all knew that going in. Somehow they manage to slap a bandaid on racism over the course of one football season. However, after watching Brian’s Song, a film three decades its elder, you can’t help but latch onto the thematic truthfulness that’s there.
There’s a lot about this film that works really well. The performances are rock solid — the boys are fun, Will Patton is a quintessential high school football coach, and Hayden Panettiere gives one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen. Denzel clearly steals the show. He is a maestro and his command and charisma are on full display here. He also happens to be perfect for the role.
The pacing is swift, the script gets the job done, and this is one of the best curated soundtracks ever.
It’s a Disney movie about racism. Obviously it’s shallow — but so is high school football. In fact, it’s the perfect film for and about high school football — it’s filling, it’s fun, and it’s familiar.
We Are Marshall (2006)
When a plane crash claims the lives of members of the Marshall University football team and some of its fans, the team’s new coach and his surviving players try to keep the football program alive.
Fun fact: Brian’s Song takes place from 1965–1970. Remember the Titans takes place in 1971. We Are Marshall also takes place in 1971. How do you like that?
In 1970, a plane carrying 37 members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, eight members of the coaching staff, and 25 boosters crashed — killing all 75 people onboard. It is the deadliest tragedy to have affected any sports team in U.S. history
We Are Marshall follows their new coach for the 1971 season, Jack Lengyel, played by Matthew McConaughey, as he tries to gather a team, convince the NCAA to let him play freshmen, and help a town heal.
The team is naturally terrible and ultimately went 2–8, but this is about much more than football. It’s about regret, guilt, and loss in the wake of a tragedy.
Despite all of the deeper themes, the movie is still your prototypical sports film, from the 11 o’clock inspirational speech to the slow motion game winner at the end of regulation. It is, even with all of these tropes, still a powerful film and worthy of a watch.
McConaughey is McConaughey through and through and despite his strong character actor skills, brings so much unintentional hilarity to this role and I really cannot tell if that helps or hurts the vibe of this rigid drama.
Now, here are a few football films you might not know:
The California Atoms are in last place with no hope of moving up. But by switching the mule from team mascot to team member, (He can kick 100 yard field goals!) they start winning, and move up in the rankings, Hurrah! The competition isn’t so happy.
For many years after the loss of Walt Disney, his namesake film studio struggled to find an identity. A lack of vision is how you end up with movies about mules that kick field goals.
Yes, the concept is goofy. But the movie really works in a silly way. It’s an Ed Asner/Don Knotts/Tim Conway (and Harold Gould!) comedy from the 70's. What do you expect?
“There are laughs to be had here, mostly due to the incredibly cheap nature of the production, which makes extensive use of awful rear-projection and attempts to recreate the Super Bowl in what looks like someone’s front yard.” Brett Blumenkopf on Letterboxd.
This kiddie film involves mobsters, illegal sports betting, and attempted animal abuse. You don’t find that in family movies any other time than the 1970's.
But despite its insanity, it’s a fun time full of laughs — both laughing at the movie and with it.
Black Sunday (1977)
An Israeli anti-terrorist agent must stop a disgruntled Vietnam vet cooperating in a plot to commit a terrorist plot at the Super Bowl.
For fans of films like Argo and Munich, this action thriller uses football, and more specifically the Americanism paradigm that is the Super Bowl, as a backdrop for international issues.
This film has two very distinct parts. The first is cerebral — albeit a tad tedious- and focuses on the issues of extremism, nationalism, terrorism, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. All handled with a tight delicacy, it’s surprising that a movie that starts this highbrow turns into an action-disaster film.
The final act is exhilarating and full of great suspense. The 70's practical effects give it an extra nudge into realism and the final chase between classic film icons Bruce Dern and Robert Shaw is a total nail biter.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
A star quarterback gets knocked out of the game and an unknown third stringer is called in to replace him. The unknown gives a stunning performance and forces the aging coach to reevaluate his game plans and life. A new co-owner/president adds to the pressure of winning. The new owner must prove herself in a male dominated world.
Despite boasting a cast that includes Academy Award winners Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx and Golden Globe nominees Dennis Quaid and Cameron Diaz (for this performance), and direction by the prolific Oscar winner Oliver Stone — this football flick has been largely ignored in the two decades since its release.
Stone’s experimental approach to traditional narratives is lauded for films like Platoon or Natural Born Killers, but for some odd reason, is considered confection for this film. He takes a traditional football film and turns it on its head by giving it his signature twist. It does, however, make your sweet tooth ache.
“IMDb’s trivia page says the film has 3,000 cuts, which might not be true, but it feels true.” Michael Baumann, The Ringer
You know how when Sonic does half price milkshakes after 8:00p in the summer? So you go out because you want a large milkshake for like three bucks. But then they hand it to you and you’re like, “Whoa, that thing’s like 10 inches tall! How bad is this for me?” So you look it up and it’s like 2250 calories and once again you’re like, “Whoa, isn’t that my daily intake?” But then you think, “Whatever! I’m going for it!” and then you eat the whole thing and it’s delicious and you don’t even care how many calories it has.
This is the cinematic equivalent of that. Cheap and totally bad for you, but so delicious.
Credit: Each plot synopsis comes from Letterboxd via TMDb.
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