'My All American' is an earnest but failed inspirational sports weepie
The true story of Freddie Steinmark, a college football legend who never made it past college football, is told in the tear-jerker "My All American."
‘My All American’
Director: Angelo Pizzo
Stars: Finn Wittrock, Aaron Eckhart
2 (out of 5) Globes
Despite its unembarrassed cheesiness and habit of lighting its hero — young, of course real-life footballer Freddie Steinmark (Finn Witttrock) — so he has a warm halo above his head, “My All American” isn’t your average inspirational sports weepie. It comes from an actual master of the form. Writer-director Angelo Pizzo wrote two of the deathless classics of the macho melodrama: “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.” And they’re not your average inspirational sports weepies either. They’re both about heroes who fight to get in the game at all; once they’re in, their stays are relatively short-lived. (In Rudy Ruetiger’s case it’s briefer than brief: he struggled mightily for just a few plays.)
In theory Steinmark should be the ideal Pizzo protagonist. He never even made it past college football, playing a single season at the University of Texas in 1969 before contracting bone cancer and dying a year and a half later. But unlike Rudy and “Hoosiers”’ Norman Dale, Steinmark isn’t fighting against anything. As played by Finn Wittrock, he’s a gee-willikers stud — a born Adonis who simply has to make sure he doesn’t fumble his god-given gifts. He has one of those tough-as-nails scary football movie dads (Michael Reilly Burke) who takes the sport very, very, very, very, very, very seriously. But he never crosses the line and knows when to chill out. The college’s growly, barking head coach, the legendary Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart), puts him on the field the second he arrives, and though the team falters and struggles, Steinmark’s grid iron bona fides are never in question.
If “My All American” is useful at all it’s as a case test in what does and does not constitute drama. Steinmark’s only problem — in fact, the only actual obstacle he has to face — is completely outside his control. He ignores a funky knee longer than he should, but the cancer is still caught early, and he winds up living longer than he should. (Even when he has a fatal disease Steinmark comes at it like a warrior. We even see him defying snooty doctors by learning to walk again once his left leg is amputated. Football!)
This all makes for fine comfort food entertainment. It’s a retro entertainment done without a hint of irony or naughtiness, where the men are immovable granite rocks and the women are there to dole out support and mashed potatoes. Poor Sarah Bolger, who plays Steinmark’s ladyfriend, is forced to slip her strong personality into a role written as little more than a body for Steinmark to hug (chastely, of course).
There are scores of sports movies about dying athletes, and Pizzo and “My All American”’s fans will cite as inspiration “Brian’s Song,” the storied 1971 TV movie about another dying footballer, played by James Caan. But that film frontloaded the departing player’s friendship with a dedicated pal (Billy Dee Williams). Pizzo never cracks Steinmark’s story. Our lead plays football and he plays it real good, and then he gets sick and pretty quickly dies. It never finds an in, and it doesn’t properly herk and jerk our emotions, despite strong work from the actors. (Wittrock is endearingly chipper right through the beatific third act.) That might be the story’s fault; Steinmark’s tale functions best as a “Sports Illustrated” article than it does a feature film. You don’t often chastise a film for not being sufficiently manipulative, but “My All American” is an out-and-proud tear-jerker, and it can’t even do that.