A true-life story plays like formulaic fiction in this tribute to UT football legend Freddie Steinmark.
Based on fact but mired in cliches, “My All-American” pays respectful tribute to U. of Texas football legend Freddie Steinmark (1949-71) with the sort of on-the-nose sincerity that transforms biography into hagiography. It’s not easily categorized as faith-based entertainment, despite repeated references to Steinmark’s daily mass attendance and a heavily dramatic scene involving prayer. But it likely will play best with audiences for whom football in general, and college football in particular, is a kind of secular religion, complete with its own set of martyrs.
Written and directed by Angelo Pizzo, whose past credits as a screenwriter (“Hoosiers,” “Rudy,” “The Game of Their Lives”) define him as a specialist in inspirational sports sagas, “My All-American” traces Steinmark’s short but eventful life — from his salad days in his native Denver to his impressive performances as a safety for the storied 1969 UT Longhorns football team.
There is a single scene that ever-so-tentatively raises the indelicate question of whether Steinmark’s hard-driving father (Michael Reilly Burke) may have pushed his eager son (Finn Wittrock) a tad too hard while encouraging him to compensate for his relatively small stature and be all he could be, after Dad’s own sporting career was cut short by injury. Otherwise, the movie remains relentlessly upbeat, if not downright saccharine, following Steinmark as he falls for his high-school sweetheart (the enchantingly photogenic Sarah Bolger), demonstrates his impressive promise on the local gridiron, and earns a full scholarship to UT after being recruited by legendary coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart), an occurrence “My All-American” depicts as roughly akin to being touched by God, or at least winning the lottery.
For all its basis in real-world events, Pizzo’s scenario — adapted from the book “Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story” by Jim Dent — plays like thoroughly predictable, by-the-numbers fiction. This is the kind of movie where, when a character mentions that his sibling will be doing military service in Vietnam, the audience immediately knows that bad news is on the horizon. And, sure enough, when that bad news does arrive, that same character just happens to wander into an antiwar demonstration by campus activists, leading inevitably to an exchange of unpleasantries.
As Royal, Eckhart conveys an apt amount of raspy-voice gravitas, especially when he delivers a variation of the “Win one for the Gipper!” speech before a big game. And he maintains his dignity even while covered with old-age makeup that gives him the appearance of someone wearing an Aaron Eckhart mask. Wittrock is largely likable as Steinmark, and has some sweetly romantic moments with Bolger. But the strain shows when he has to express stoic courage and determination after his character is diagnosed with bone cancer. (For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the arcana of college sports: After Steinmark distinguished himself during the Longhorns’ 1969 “Game of the Century” match-up with the Arkansas Razorbacks — an event deemed important enough for President Nixon to attend — his tumorous leg was amputated at the hip, and he was unable to play with his team in the 1970 Cotton Bowl. He died 18 months later.)
Among the supporting players, Juston Street stands out by playing his father, record-setting UT quarterback James Street, with a gonzo zeal that recalls the young Nicolas Cage. Robin Tunney pops up from time to time as Steinmark’s mom, but the prominence of her billing is glaringly disproportionate to the size of her role.
The rough-and-tumble action during football games and practices is adroitly filmed and edited, and the digital tweaking of crowds in bleachers is reasonably persuasive. Another plus: The soundtrack includes, in addition to scads of other period-appropriate golden oldies, the definitive Tex-Mex blues-rock recording of the era, the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover.”