The opening scene of My All-American telegraphs just about every problem that the film will have right from the get-go. Beginning in 2010, a student at the University of Texas sits down to interview coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart horrendously aged-up with makeup), and what ensues is an exposition-heavy exchange that establishes Royal’s long career – replete with cringeworthy “grandpa jokes”. The interviewer asks if any of Royal’s former players stand out as having a profound impact on him, and he responds with “Freddy… Freddy Steinmark.”
What follows is a film that chronicles the life and athletic career of Freddy Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), who overcame his small stature through hard work and faith in God to be a great safety for the University of Texas – with coach Royal and his girlfriend Linda (Sarah Bolger) at his side. My All-American ultimately flounders due to its script. It’s framed as an underdog story about Steinmark’s collegiate football career, but we as an audience seldom see the diminutive football player at a disadvantage.
Whenever Steinmark is on the field, he dominates his fellow players – a trend that continues even through the leg injury that the film centers around. Steinmark is put on a pedestal by the filmmakers to the point where he has no real character arc; he is perpetually perfect, and when faced with new adversity immediately overcomes or accepts it with minimal deliberation. There’s a scene towards the end of the film in which Royal has a private moment with Steinmark; he tells Freddy that they’ve both been through hell but they did it together. The problem with this attempt at a touching moment is the fact that the audience never really sees any moment where they formed such an incredible bond; they just sort of begin to like each other.
The film also has very little respect for the intelligence of the audience. Dialogue continually feels clunky because many of the characters don’t talk like real people. Exposition is spoon fed to us in ways that feel unnatural, and could have just as easily been picked up from context clues.
For a movie that takes place during the 1960s. My All-American tends to ignore many of the major social issues that were taking place at that time. That’s not to say that the film is under any sort of requirements to broach a subject other than football, but it glosses over major events happening around the characters. Vietnam plays a major role in one of the main characters’ lives, but accounts for just a handful of scenes. Student protests of the war and the rise of the hippie movement added some intriguing elements to the backdrop of the film that were never explored in exchange for a more wholesome – and less interesting – central focus.
That being said, when compared to the other historical, faith-based football movie that hit theaters this, Woodlawn, My All-American does a much better job of downplaying its themes. Freddy has a relationship with God that seemingly serves him well throughout his football career, but that relationship is handled in such a way that even people less inclined to share his views can empathize.
It’s also worth noting that the film’s entire cast does rise above the major problems in the script. Although Steinmark is written as a single-minded fanatic who thinks of nothing aside from football, Finn Wittrock does everything he can to keep the character likable and sympathetic. He also threw himself into the physicality of the role, which helped sell Steinmark’s hard-earned athleticism. Sarah Bolger does an excellent job with what little material the script gives her to work with. Early in the film she is portrayed as a timid nerd with no interest in football, but then somehow she is later a boisterous member of her high school cheerleading squad – despite certain inconsistencies she manages to sell the character and ground Freddy during his darker moments toward the end of the film.
Aaron Eckhart work on this film reaffirms my belief that he’s one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors working today with his take on the character of Darrell Royal. I emphasize “the character” because it’s difficult to say how accurately the script captured the character. Royal is made out to be something of a kindhearted football guru in My All-American, but a 1972 bestselling novel by Gary Shaw titled Meat on the Hoof was a brutal coach who engaged in hazing, racism, and manipulation of NCAA scholarship rules. Eckhart manages to sell certain glimpses of this darker character, but by and large the script endeavors to make him out to be a heroic father figure for his players.
On paper, My All-American had potential to be an amazing football story, but squandered it to put its hero on a pedestal. In a world where Rudy exists, it becomes difficult to justify this decidedly inferior football movie. The cast tries their best but in the end it becomes almost impossible for the audience to revere Freddy Steinmark as much as the film does.