Angelo Pizzo knows inspirational sports drama. As the writer of “Hoosiers” and “Rudy,” Pizzo has made a career out of mining the genre and its themes of underdog determination and locker-room brotherhood. But he’s overmatched in his directing debut, the well-intentioned football biopic “My All American.”
The bittersweet story of 1960s University of Texas shooting star Freddie Steinmark has the elements we’d expect from someone with Pizzo’s filmography: unabashed sentiment, infectious positivity, and enough game footage to leave even Bill Belichick bleary-eyed. The rookie helmer also gets a charismatic performance from his lead, Matt Damon look-alike Finn Wittrock (“American Horror Story”). But whether it’s because of energy expended on dramatic tangents or because the story’s difficult outcome demands a subtler touch, the film doesn’t hit the emotional crescendo that Pizzo clearly pictures. You won’t leave feeling inspirationally moved so much as depressed.
Things get off to a clunky start with legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal (unconvincingly aged Aaron Eckhart) reminiscing about how Steinmark was “my All American,” official recognition notwithstanding. The movie finds its footing in rewinding several decades to Colorado Friday-night-lights territory, where popular, irrepressibly optimistic Freddie is sure this is the year his losing high school squad will turn it around. Shy, pretty Linda (Sarah Bolger, “Once Upon a Time”) buys the various upbeat dreams he’s selling, and so does Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell), his physically gifted, initially cynical new teammate. Soon they’re all off to Austin, as undersize Freddie nabs a scholarship by making yet another believer out of Eckhart’s tough-but-accessible Royal (mercifully freed from the bad makeup).
Cut to training camp trials, coach-speak about the wishbone offense, quarterback controversy, and personal tribulations for Bobby. In short, there’s a lot going on besides more fully dimensionalizing Freddie’s character ahead of that ominous moment when — uh-oh — he winces and clutches his leg.
This mystery health issue comes to a head during an instant-classic matchup with Arkansas for the national title, as Royal reluctantly pulls struggling Freddie for another defensive back. Here again, the movie drifts off-topic, as we’re shown all of the game action that Freddie misses. If you happen to have, say, UT superfan Matthew McConaughey’s level of passion for the Longhorns, you might be into it. Otherwise, you might wonder about some of Pizzo’s narrative play calling, and how much more profound our empathy could have been.
MY ALL AMERICAN
Written and directed by Angelo Pizzo, based on Jim Dent’s book “Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story.” Starring Finn Wittrock, Aaron Eckhart, Sarah Bolger. Boston Common, suburbs.
118 minutes. PG (thematic elements, language, brief partial nudity).