Invincible is pretty much the end-all be-all of football fantasy movies. And the greatest part about it is that it’s a true story. It takes place in the mid ‘70s, when the Philadelphia Eagles were having a terrible season, and they’d just hired a new coach, Dick Vermeil. In order to get the city excited about the Eagles again he held an open tryout, and the down-on-his-luck 30-year-old bartender Vince Papale showed up.
Despite the fact that he’s been down on himself ever since his wife left him and took all of his belongings, he goes to the tryout and is the only guy out of hundreds to get called back. Now, anyone going into this movie probably knows what the premise is, so it’s no huge surprise that Papale, after much sweat and toil, makes the team.
But there’s something genuinely inspiring and moving to watch a guy who’s had such a rough go of it for so long finally break through and get the chance to show the world what he’s made of. Yes, this is a Disney feelgood movie, but the director, Ericson Core, shoots in muddy browns and flat grays, so you really get the feel of a mini-depression going on in Philadelphia. Mark Wahlberg as Papale expertly underplays the role, carrying all the hard knocks of Philly on his back like the sacrificial lamb he’s become. When he finally gets to the stadium and starts knocking heads, he does it for himself, for his friends, and for his entire city – and they love him for it.
4. Friday Night Lights
Once again based on real life, Friday Night Lights tells the story of the Odessa, Texas high school football team, the Permian Panthers. Based on writer H.G. Bissinger’s book, Friday Night Lights is a portrait of small town life in Texas in 1988: poor and downtrodden, the Panthers games every Friday night are the only thing most people have to look forward to. So when their star tailback suffers a serious knee injury in the first game of the season, coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) has to rally his team to get through the rest of the season with a winning record.
As good as the movie is, it should be noted that the show of the same name, also created by Peter Berg, is even better. Set in the present in the fictional Texas town of Dillon, the show is able to develop and grow much more realistically than the two hour movie was able to.
Furthermore, it’s much better cast: Kyle Chandler plays coach Eric Taylor, and his portrayal of a coach with a big responsibility to his town and his team is consistently one of the most naturalistic, captivating performances on television. And Zach Gilford, who plays the reluctant second-string quarterback Matt Saracen, thrust into the limelight when star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) suffers a broken neck, is very sympathetic as a sensitive jock with a difficult home life. It doesn’t hurt that the rest of the cast is rounded out by many beautiful ladies, and the budding movie star Taylor Kitsch got his big break on this show playing the wounded linebacker Tim Riggins. This is, for all intents and purposes, the best show on television right now.
3. Any Given Sunday
If only for the great pep talk coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) gives his team before a big game, Any Given Sunday is one of the best football films around. Even if it didn’t take a critical eye at the business of professional football, even if it didn’t have a stellar cast (Dennis Quaid, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Aaron Eckhart and even Cameron Diaz rouses a solid performance out of herself), and even if it wasn’t directed by revered (if irreverent) Oliver Stone, Any Given Sunday would still be fantastic, if only for Pacino’s speech.
He has spent so much of the latter half of his career chewing up every piece of scenery that comes his way, blowing his top at the drop of a hat, losing his cool when staying cool was what was called for. But this speech is like a self-contained, miniature acting school in less than five minutes. He builds, starting out low-key and subdued, and he builds, the color rising in his face, and he builds, until the energy radiates off him and infuses every other actor on screen, and he builds, until there’s nothing visible but the incandescent brilliance of Pacino at his best.
Few football movies bring something new to the half-time pep talk. This one does, and then some.
2. All the Right Moves
Source: Twentieth Century-Fox
Back when Tom Cruise was a youngster in the early ‘80s he did some of his best acting; he starred in both Risky Business and All the Right Moves in 1983, and his performance in the latter as a poor kid from a depressed Pennsylvania steel town is certainly one of his most sympathetic.
Stefen Djordjevic (Cruise) is a high school football player with lots of promise. He knows his only shot at going to college is if he gets a scholarship to play football. So when he gets into it with coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) after his team makes a stupid mistake and loses a rivalry game, he’s kicked off the team and he sees his dreams of college go up in smoke.
All the Right Moves is interesting because for once we get a football player who’s more interested in going to college than playing pro ball, and because it highlights the tense relationships coaches often have with their players. For most of the film, coach Nickerson becomes a reluctant villain, stymieing any hope Stefen has at escaping his small home town. But, ironically, Nickerson acts the way he does because he wants out just as badly as Stefen does – the forces that set them against each other become the same forces that bind them together. In the process Stefen learns how to treat his girlfriend Lisa (Lea Thompson) with the love and respect she deserves, and he learns there’s more value in kindness and respect than selfishness.
Source: TriStar Pictures
Rudy is still the gold standard for inspirational football movies, and probably inspirational sports movies in general. It is, of course, a true story – or based on real events, anyway – about a guy named Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (Sean Astin), a poor kid with so-so grades from a family where after high school everyone worked in a steel factory. But after the death of his best friend Pete, he decides to follow his childhood dream of playing for the Notre Dame football team, despite the fact that he doesn’t have the grades, the size, or the athletic ability.
Yeah, this is another feel-good-inside movie about a guy overcoming all the odds to achieve his dreams – if only for one game, for a couple of plays. But there’s more to it than that. Rudy is literally a story about the little guy triumphing over giants. His dad tells him dream is stupid, his brother tells him his dream is stupid, the priest who teaches him in high school tells him his dream is stupid – this guy can’t catch a break.
He finally does make the grade and the team, even if it’s only to be a punching bag for all the first-stringers. Rudy proves himself by being able to withstand more pain and endure more disappointment than anyone else, which is a nice theme in a cinematic landscape where might, guns and brutality usually makes right. Rudy is a testament to will power and tenacity, and it reminds us why we love football: you don’t have to be seven feet tall to play, you don’t have to be rich to play. You just have to really, really love the game.