There are three specific events at which a manly man is allowed to cry: the death of his mother, the birth of his daughter, and a sports movie. That’s where we get go-for-the-jugular real life tear-jerkers like “Brian’s Song” (about Chicago Bears football player Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer at age 26), “Friday Night Lights” (about a Texas high school gridiron champion whose knee injury ended his career) and “My All American.”
Angelo Pizzo, screenwriter of “Rudy” and “Hoosiers,” provided both script and direction for this biography of beloved University of Texas player Freddie Steinmark. Men, bring your tissues. Like Pizzo’s earlier sports films, it follows an undersized, underestimated underdog through serious challenges toward a life-affirming climax. It is simple, heartfelt and moving.
Set in the 1960s and ’70s, “My All American” has the quaint appeal of a well-designed Lava Lamp. It’s old-fashioned but still rather cool. Right from his Colorado high school days Freddie, played with winning charisma by Finn Wittrock, is Mr. Hustle. Though he is fairly short and slim, he’s convinced that he is on the way to an NFL career. His father, who was heading toward pro baseball before an injury sidelined him, trains him like a strict Olympic coach. Freddie pushes as hard as he can every moment. He’s not trying to top his fellow altar boys, chemistry students and cute guys in the dating pool. He humbly wants to do his personal best. Unsportsmanlike conduct is as unknown to him as skipping his daily morning mass; one of his teammates affectionately nicknames him Pollyanna.
Freddie moves on to college thanks to a football scholarship, drawing his smitten high school sweetheart Linda Wheeler with him (Irish actress Sarah Bolger brings a pixy-ish charm to the part). Texas football coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart with a Texan twang) is impressed by his talent, grit and always upbeat attitude. Royal, whose locker room rallying cries blend the best of Lombardi and Hemingway, finds his defensive back prodigy so inspiring that he jokingly asks him for a weekly pep talk of his own.
Passing the pigskin between the Freddie-Linda romance, the coach-player mentorship and nicely staged football games, the film shows Freddie helping to lead the comeback 1969 Longhorn team to the college football national championship. Behind the camera for the first time, Pizzo creates a story of an inspiring role model where there is very little at stake for his main character. There is no sociological subtext, as the Vietnam War takes place entirely off camera. It moves along famishing for illuminating drama and emotional tumult until well into the second hour, where terrible things happen to Freddie with potentially grave consequences.
Pizzo’s modest film is uplifting, but it is far from 1942’s “The Pride of the Yankees”; who doesn’t remember Gary Cooper delivering Lou Gehrig’s historic farewell address at Yankee Stadium? “My All American” is good but not Big Ten good.