“My All American,” based on the true story of famed Texas Longhorn safety Freddie Steinmark, fully embraces the clichés often embedded into sport films. The moments of agonizing self-doubt and heartwarming scenes of an underdog team rising to the top are all accounted for, but the film avoids just being a lazy retread of other great football movies. Director Angelo Pizzo, who also wrote the acclaimed, tear-jerking sports films “Rudy” and “Hoosiers,” may retool similar story threads, but he uses spirited performances to his advantage to tell a tragic, yet uplifting story of a football legend.
Steinmark (Finn Wittrock) starts out as an achieving high-school football player who dreams of becoming a football legend at Notre Dame. Just when it appears no college will have him, Texas head coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart) gives both him and his best friend Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell) a chance to become Longhorns. Slowly, the ragtag team works their way up to become the best in the league. However, when Steinmark encounters a cancerous tumor, he finds his career in jeopardy.
“My All American” flings itself into every familiar beat of a typical sports drama. Many scenes are heavy-handed and cheesy, but the actors inject so much intensity in their performances that it’s possible for even the most cynical people to buy into the predictable, yet dramatic moments. Dull romantic subplots aside, Pizzo keeps the majority of the story where it should be: on Steinmark and the field.
The reenactments of legendary football games manage to recreate the thrilling tension of an actual college game. Of course, the suspense may be easily lost on any seasoned football historian, but it’s still an entertaining ride through fine moments in college football history. Longhorn fans will be more invested in the action than say, Sooners or Aggies, but fans of sports films will easily get their fill.
Wittrock’s performance as the wide-eyed, determined Steinmark is riveting, but he only becomes intriguing after a slow buildup during the film’s first half. He starts to shine in the moments after a cancer prognosis. Wittrock delivers an incredible amount of passion as he portrays Steinmark’s determination not to succumb to cancer. Eckhart spends a good chunk of the film getting the audience to warm up to him. His gruff, no-nonsense exterior is a bit hokey, but his relationship with Steinmark marks him as an embattled father-figure. Being the only big name in the film, it’s initially tough to see him as one of Texas’s most famous head coaches, but he eventually sinks into the role.
Despite Wittrock’s strong performance, he’s still burdened with carrying an uninteresting first hour. Other than his initial trouble getting into a college, his character experiences little conflict until his cancer diagnosis. Early on, most of the drama in the film tends to circle around him. For instance, Bobby suffers greatly during a subplot when his brother is killed in Vietnam, which culminates in a touching scene between the two teammates. The action on the field helps skate over a lackluster character arc, but the holes are still present.
“My All American” doesn’t particularly break any new ground in the sports movies, but Pizzo’s drive for telling Steinmark’s story outweighs the narrative flaws and the lack of subtlety that has defined the genre. Paired with heartfelt performances by Wittrock and Eckhart, the film succeeds in retelling both the tragedy and the triumph of Steinmark’s short lived career. Not all Longhorns — or football fans in general — may be charmed by the film, but those looking to relive an inspirational moment in Texas football history will walk away satisfied.
Director: Angelo Pizzo
Runtime: 118 minutes
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars