The Texas Longhorns Get the Indiana Treatment

Director: ANGELO PIZZO/2015

Writer/Director Angelo Pizzo is responsible for two of the most iconic feel-good sports films of the last 30 years.  In the 1986 film Hoosiers, as a writer and second-unit director, he documents the true-life story of Milan High School (renamed Hickory for the film) which was the smallest school to ever win the Indiana State Basketball Championship, in 1954.  He followed that up as a writer, and again a second-unit director, with the modern-day classic film Rudy.  Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings, The Goonies) plays real-life Notre Dame football player Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, whose tenacity to make the team by playing in a game, despite his small stature, became legendary when he made a play in a game and ended up being the last player carried off the field in triumph at Notre Dame.  As Notre Dame is also in Indiana, you get a sense of a theme developing.

Pizzo was a graduate of Indiana University, and his films seem to stick to the storied sports histories that float around that midwestern state.  The historical narrative in each of his films has certainly been questioned, but most agree that his stories are uplifting sports dramas that seem to resonate with middle America.

His latest film is My All-American.  While the film chronicles the story of Colorado football player, Freddie Steinmark, who ends up at the University of Texas during their storied National Championship year of 1969 under head coach Darrell K. Royal (Aaron Eckhart-The Dark Knight, Thank You For Smoking), there is still an Indiana connection.  Steinmark (Finn Whittrock-UnbrokenNoah) is shown desiring to attend Notre Dame as a life-long dream.  A devoted Catholic, Freddie holds the University in high regard for their faith, academics, and their storied football history.

Like Rudy, Steinmark is of smaller stature but has a heart that eclipses the players twice his size.  His tenacity leads his high school football coach to put a word in with a friend of his who is an assistant coach at the University of Texas, which leads to Steinmark and his high school teammate Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell), to be recruited by Coach Royal. Steinmark’s girlfriend Linda Wheeler (Sarah Bolger-The Lazarus Effect) is also accepted to the University, giving Freddie an instant community.

Whittrock plays Steinmark as one of the happiest, most-likable, and encouraging “all-American” guys that might have existed in the 1960’s.  Untainted by the Vietnam War escalating at that time, or the drug and hippie movement, Steinmark is seen as someone that everyone gravitated to, and who elevated everyone he met.  Scenes involving Coach Royal show that the coach found his positive attitude contagious, even when he had to demote his all-American quarterback Bill Bradley when he couldn’t run the new “triple-option” (later named the Wishbone) offense he was installing as a way to shake things up to get some wins. Whittrock keeps Freddie grounded in spite of his eternal “white-bread” optimism, and shows him to be a real, complex person, and not some personality from a fictionally idealized yesteryear.  His smile is flashed throughout the film and I found it to be a strangely dead-on Matt Damon impersonation.  In fact, when Matt is ready to hang up his role as Jason Bourne, this may end up being the guy to replace him in terms of physical likeness.

The film documents the storied 1969 championship run by the University of Texas, but it is more about how Steinmark deals with the ultimate challenge when a perceived leg-injury that he’s been playing on all year turns out to be something more challenging.

The story narrative is set up with an older Coach Royal being interviewed in 2010 by a student newspaper writer, from the University, about the greatest athlete he has ever coached.  Given the history of the University of Texas’ football program, the student is caught off-guard by hearing Steinmark’s name being relayed by the coach as his “all-American” player, and not some of the more famous names from across the years.  The rest of the film is the flashback of his memory of this individual.  But for the casual observer of college football, including several recent graduates from the University of Texas that I’ve spoken to, the name Freddie Steinmark is not a household name.  But if you were to ask a football player from there, his name is legendary.

As a Texan, I think I felt a lot like the people from Indiana who saw their famed stories from their state being played out on the big screen.  Having attended football games in Darrell K. Royal stadium in Austin, I can attest that the film gets the feel of the games in that town right, and provides some lovely ariel shots of the city of Austin, as well as outside of Denver when Freddie is in high school.  I also have a family connection to this story as well, as one of my family members was the R.A. at the dorm where many of the football players, depicted in this film, lived.  After the film comes out, I can’t wait to talk to him about how closely this film “got it right” historically, especially compared to some of the complaints leveled at the director for Hoosiers and Rudy over the years.

If I had to say anything negative about the film, it would be that the story seems a little forced at times trying to generate moving moments for the audience to feel something.  If Pizzo learned anything from his previous writing work on his two previously loved films, it is that the story can provide that heart-warming moment organically when you just let it unfold as a natural part of the narrative than by any manipulated moments.  In addition to writing this film, this is the first directorial effort by Angelo Pizzo.  While his directorial inexperience might show at times, on the whole he is able to guide yet another good feel-good sports story across the goal line, and convey the inspiring message his screenplay is trying to tell about this real-life individual.

Fans of the Texas Longhorns will especially love My All-American, but middle America should connect with the character and integrity of yet another inspiring figure in Angelo Pizzo’s film repertoire as well.  As for that Indiana connection, it is alive and well. To solidify that connection, it is fitting that the final game in the film is against Freddie Steinmark’s favorite childhood team, and Rudy‘s alma mater, Notre Dame.