I never fault a film for achieving its goals, which is why, despite perhaps not the best storytelling, I'm going to give a somewhat positive review to My All-American. This is a film not without issues, but it has a total sincerity of purpose for which I cannot find it in me to go after. Oh, I'll make note of things I think My All-American could or should have done better, but given what it wanted to do (be inspirational), My All-American set that goal and met it.
Using a framing device of a 2010 interview with legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart), My All-American is a biopic of Freddie Steinmark (Finn Witrock). Steinmark, according to Royal, was his 'all-American', the football player he considers the best. This is a surprise given the great players Royal's coached, and the fact that Steinmark isn't remembered or known by many. Still, Royal offers his tale.
Steinmark is not tall or particularly strong, but he's got great athleticism and fierce determination. He's both the smallest big man on campus and a nice Catholic boy, going to Mass every day. He's also got his entire life planned out: he'll go to the University of Colorado to play college ball then up to Chicago where he'll play for the Bears. Now, while every girl in high school is after Freddie, his eyes are only for Linda (Sarah Bolger), the new girl in town who, like every girl, instantly finds him desirable.
However, given his size no major college is looking at him, frustrating both him and his father, Fred (Michael Reilly Burke). As it so happens, there is one person who is looking at him, and that's Royal down in Austin. With that, Freddie and his best mate Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell) go down to Texas. What Freddie lacks in size he makes up in heart and grit, and soon, he finds himself as one of the best players on the team. Things appear to be going extremely well for Freddie: a great football career, Linda with him down in Austin (she a Spanish major), and generally well-liked. However, as his career goes he starts feeling a pain in his leg that he tries to shake off, but things start getting harder and harder. Determined to play and pushing aside suggestions to have his leg checked, he manages to make it to a major game against the Arkansas Razorbacks (dubbed "the Game of the Century"), but afterwards finally goes for a medical exam.
The news is devastating: a malignant tumor. To save his life, they will have to amputate up to hip. He agrees, knowing that his football career and everything he's worked for is dead (if not himself). Linda and Coach Royal stand by his side, but they and the Longhorns are all devastated by the news. Freddie loses his leg, but being Freddie, he is determined to stand with his teammates as they play Notre Dame at the 1970 Cotton Bowl. It's bittersweet for Steinmark, as his great dream was to play against Notre Dame to show what they missed. He won't go in a wheelchair, but trains furiously to use crutches to make it onto the field. He does make it, but dies two years later. As Royal concludes his remembrance, we see that Steinmark is still honored by UT: all future Longhorns touch a remembrance plaque as they rush out to Darrell K Royal Stadium.
As I said, I'm not going to fault My All-American for aiming at a particular goal and meeting it. It is a bit unfortunate thought that the goal was somewhat low. I think the big issue with My All-American is that is it so clearly meant to be inspiration that it veers dangerous close to coming across as almost smug in its portrayal of Steinmark. From what we are presented, Steinmark is just about perfect in every way; that whole 'every girl wants him, every guy wants to be him, and he goes to Mass every day' deal in particular makes Steinmark come across as some golden boy, almost untouched by sin. I don't think it was writer/director Angelo Pizzo's intentions to have Steinmark come across as a man who can almost walk on water while being a virginal sex god, but My All-American I think could have done better by not making Steinmark so bland.
Now, this isn't saying that it had to turn him into a Longhorn version of Johnny Manziel (especially since Steinmark was, from all accounts, a decent and hardworking man, two things one can't say about "Johnny Ego"), but the film does make him a bit remote from us, and it skimps on other facts. Of particular note is the relationship with his father. Fred is a somewhat opaque figure: somewhere between Tim McGraw in Friday Night Lights and Ned Beatty in Rudy. One doesn't know whether Mr. Steinmark was pushing his son into a football life or supporting his son's dreams of a football life. My All-American goes both ways with him, and it never bothers to decide whether we're suppose to like or dislike Freddie's father.
Now, in terms of performances I think Finn Wittrock is someone to watch. He did a very good job of making Freddie likeable despite an apparent lack of flaws. He also deserves credit for convincingly playing a high school and college student despite being 31 years old, but one shouldn't quibble about such things. Wittrock makes Freddie into a determined man, willing to go all-out for his sport and his team. Eckhart, I'm convinced, can do pretty much everything (save overcome some ghastly make-up that doesn't convince anyone). He is strong, stoic, steady, and strong, like you'd expect Darrell Royal to be (yes, I know I said 'strong' twice, but it bears emphasis). Bolger I think did as good a job as possible given the underwritten part of the ever-loyal girlfriend, who falls for Steinmark's hot body and saintly soul.
I think this is where My All-American does succeed. All the actors pretty much manage to do good work despite a weak script (even if sometimes they are playing characters close to being clichés and sometimes losing what could be good stories). For example, anti-war protests consume UT when Bobby learns of his brother's death in Vietnam. Now, while I imagine UT is even more radical now than it was in 1969 I think it strange that the Vietnam issue was brought up only to give Steinmark a chance to pray and show Bobby that faith can help through troubled times. Wouldn't Bobby, being as close to Freddie down to being his roommate, be aware of Steinmark's strong Catholicism?
Well, some things are not answered.
However, and again I say this, given what it was and for the money spent on it (I imagine a lot was given to secure rights to the soundtrack that made it obvious what era we were in), My All-American set out to inspire and it met its purpose. By no means a great film, or a great sports film (Hoosiers for that, which curiously enough was written by Pizzo), or a great football film (I'd put Rudy up there, which curiously enough was written by Pizzo) or even a great film about Texas football (Friday Night Lights so far has that title), My All-American could have been better. Still, it was good enough, and I can't fault a film for being 'good enough'.