In 2015, even fans of football are jaded by the concussions, off-field violence, and scandals that plague the game at all levels. Given that, it’s an uphill battle to sell the viewing public on a heartfelt football movie like My All American. But My All American has the genuinely inspirational true story of Freddie Steinmark at its forefront, and a seasoned veteran in its back pocket: writer and first time director Angelo Pizzo’s credits include Hoosiers and Rudy, two of the best known “based on a true story” sports films of all time. The film isn’t particularly deep, but it’s a charming motivational sports movie that becomes a moving motivational life movie halfway through.
Based on Jim Dent’s book Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story, Pizzo’s My All American tells the true story of Steinmark, a young football player whose drive knows no bounds and gets him a much-needed scholarship at the University of Texas in the late 1960s. The plot follows Freddie, his coach (Aaron Eckhart as Coach Darrell Royal), his team, and his girlfriend through a couple of intense, high profile seasons before eventually taking a somber turn as Freddie faces a sudden and devastating turn of events.
The plot of the film is dictated by Freddie Steinmark’s real life, but Pizzo tells the story well. The writing is witty and generally the pacing works, though the shift in tone is a bit abrupt as the movie shifts from light-hearted underdog tale in the first half to motivational tearjerker in the second. Also, although the script considers several aspects of Freddie’s life, this is very much a story told through a football lens. The football scenes are well done, but they’re long and there are several of them. Unlike its Texas-based brother Friday Night Lights, it would be hard to really get into My All American if you have no interest in or knowledge of football. The scenes are also a little jarring because of the complete lack of non-white players. Texas hadn’t racially integrated their varsity football team in 1969, so the film is historically accurate, but it’s strange to see an uninterrupted sea of white guys making up a college football team.
The performances in the movie are strong, and Finn Wittrock as Freddie is a particularly good fit. The role could have been a tough sell, since Freddie is kind, hard-working, and talented – essentially flawless. In real life, those are the people the rest of us usually want to hate. But Wittrock gets us on Freddie’s side, and he plays Freddie as the perfect son, boyfriend, teammate, and friend in a way that’s believable and even endearing.
Freddie’s perfection can be forgiven since this is, after all, his motivational biopic. But in My All American, every character is completely good and loyal, and the collective effect burdens the film with a shallow feeling. Everything that is dark in the story comes from the outside – the Vietnam War touches Freddie’s best friend slash roommate, then tragedy comes to call on Freddie himself. Pizzo may have been penned in by the true story he was fictionalizing, but a complete lack of interpersonal conflict makes the story of an obviously inspiring man seem less genuine and more like a rose-colored tribute.
At times, My All American comes close to veering too far into the realm of a sappy schmaltziness, hinted at by the overly sentimental title and the nonsensical tagline “Hope Never Quits.” On the whole, however, Pizzo does justice to the genre with a film that’s engaging and moving despite being broader than it is deep.