Friday, September 25, 2015

Brian's Song

Now how about this? Brian's Song (1971) is a football movie that's not really about football. Oh, sure the main characters are players, there's the grizzled old coach, and there's footage of the gridiron, but the real theme of the movie is friendship and facing life's adversities. I don't think it's sexist to point out that men have a more difficult time expressing their emotions, but Brian's Song is one movie most men don't have a problem admitting made them cry.

Based on a true story, Brian's Song is the story of two running backs who join the Chicago Bears in 1965: the black Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and the white Brian Piccolo (James Caan). Sayers is quiet and shy but has tremendous talent; Piccolo, while not as skilled, has an excess of personality and is an overachiever. After being assigned to room together, the two become great friends. When Sayers hurts his leg, Piccolo remains at his side and helps him regain his form. But then fate deals a cruel blow when Piccolo is diagnosed with cancer, dying at age 26. When he is awarded the George S. Halas Most Courageous Player Award, Sayers says Piccolo is the one who deserves it, saying he has the "heart of a giant and that rare form of courage ... I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too."

It's easy to see where Brian's Song could have gone off the rails. Those same story elements could have made for a mawkish, soap opera-level melodrama, but this made-for-TV movie is restrained, content to tell the story in simple, direct terms without trying to pump it up with phony contrivances or distractions. It sticks with the story of the friendship between Sayers and Piccolo, and really, that's all the movie needs.

For example, the easy dramatic choice for the film would have been to make Piccolo a racist who learns to see the error of his ways through an evolving relationship with Sayers and to initially resent a black man competing for his spot on the team. That would have been the obvious, predictable arc. Instead, he seems to take a liking to Sayers right away, and Sayers' initial uncertainty toward him is based on differences in personality, not race. They quickly become friends, and in fact, the one time Piccolo directs at a racial slur at Sayers, it's not out of anger or prejudice but a desire to motivate him while rehabbing his leg, and both men end up cracking up because of it.

As a made-for-TV movie, Brian's Song isn't as flashy or as cinematic as it could have been, but it's effective and gets the job done visually. While most of the football games seem to be stock footage, we do get some variety in locations so the film doesn't feel static or sterile. For the most part, director Buzz Kulik doesn't try to get cute or distracting; he's content to give room for the performances, which are uniformly outstanding.

For Caan, this is another great performance in a career filled with them, and for Williams, he was never better; Sayers is such 180 degree difference from his other most famous role, Lando Calrissian, that it's hard to believe both characters were played by the same actor. They are supported by an able cast, including Jack Warden as Coach Halas and Bernie Casey as team captain J.C. Caroline (would anyone be brave enough to try to run the ball past him?).

If you still question whether Brian's Song is worth a watch, remember this: it was referenced on Archer. Come on, that is a pretty high vote of confidence. Even if you're not a football fan, it's almost impossible to not be moved by this story of friendship, and even though it ends with the death of one its lead, it's an uplifting, inspirational piece.

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