There's A Good Movie To Be Made About College Football, But "The Program" Wasn't It
In 1993, "The Program" set out to address the corruption and compromises of college sports. It didn't do a very good job then, and looks even worse now.
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In 1993, a movie aimed to blow the lid off the seedier aspects of college football, but wound up gaining a reputation of being as problematic as the game it was trying to expose. Less than three weeks later, the much rosier and much better college football movie Rudy premiered, and everyone forgot about the first one. This is for the best, as The Program is near-irredeemable crap.
The Program has the pedigree of director and co-writer David S. Ward, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for The Sting but secured his legacy by creating Major League. Whereas Major League gave us an actual city and team to root for in Ward's beloved Cleveland Indians, The Program and its players fail even to reach the relatability of a scatter-armed Charlie Sheen, let alone creaky old Tom Berenger. The Eastern State University Timberwolves, are the program. They're also ruthlessly generic, a college football team playing in a conference so nebulous as to include half the ACC and half the Big Ten, with fans suspiciously fervent about also rooting for the University of South Carolina. The Program is a more self-serious Blue Chips, in other words, only with the star power of Matt Nover (and Shaquille O'Neal) swapped out for a group of actors who were by and large too old, bulky, and stagey for Beverly Hills 90210.
James Caan is Coach Sam Winters, at once the ESU Timberwolves' pragmatic moral center and their worst wishy-washy enabler. Winters is worried about his job after going the last two years without reaching a bowl game, bringing great shame to both the creatively named Eastern Athletic Conference and the great state of Eastern, which ESU presumably calls home. Had James Caan coached today he'd be fired for winning five Alamo Bowls in a row, but that's just one of the glaring differences between college football in the 1990's, which The Program aims to expose, and the glossier, richer game we tolerate today; the still-extant kayfabe that the NCAA was well-meaning but flawed, rather than downright corporate evil, is the most obvious of these, but a game ending in a tie also sticks out. Caan is an awfully good actor, but he isn't given much to work with, here, besides a subplot where his daughter (Joey Lauren Adams) only exists to disappoint him, and some overdetermined speeches addressing the difference between being hurt and being injured.
The Program takes its precious time trying to get you to identify with a host of unappealing characters. There's the star linebacker whose fate is sealed once he gives his mama the door knocker for the house he'll buy her after he plays one more year in college, because, again, 1993. There's also the scrappy running back who flunks his way into Halle Berry's heart, the alcoholic star quarterback who you think is dating the coach's daughter, the backup QB who actually is dating the quarterback's daughter, and also Abraham Benrubi is there for some reason.
And then there's Steve Lattimer, as played by the inimitable Andrew Bryniarski. Between his junior and senior year, Lattimer "mysteriously" puts on 35 pounds of solid muscle, transforming from a Steve Tasker-esque special teams player, into a honest-to-God Bill Romanowski, except Lattimer played defensive end instead of linebacker and spat at another player out of respect, which actually kind of sounds like something Romanowski would do, now that I type it out here. One starts to think this Lattimer fella is pretty cool, as he smashes his head through the window of an early-model Ford Explorer and appropriates Native American imagery to project himself as a warrior figure on and off the field. Just as soon as we start to empathize with him, Lattimer tries to violently force himself on a co-ed, literally throwing her around before his teammates intervene. Coach Winters does the exact opposite of the right thing and suspends Lattimer three games, for steroid abuse. This same coach kicks the backup QB off the team for having his daughter take a test for him. Subsequently Lattimer steps off the gas, plays terribly without steroids, gets back on them and after all this, regrets taking steroids and only taking steroids. Boo fucking hoo, creep.
By the end of The Program, you almost wish Eastern State earns a bid for the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, just on the off chance that the team plane gets lost in the Bermuda Triangle and all aboard disappear forever. ESU has a conference championship on the line, but you know too much about the players and too little about the team to really care. Joe Kane is back from rehab but is still dealing with daddy issues, so he sucks until Coach Winters talks some sense into him. Omar Epps and the fullback he's fighting over Halle Berry with aren't on the same page, until Coach Winters again talks some sense into them. There is no use in talking sense to Lattimer, so after a weird "oil change" scene in which clean urine is put inside his body so he could pass a drug test, he regains the unnatural strength to make the big play. Alvin Mack is sitting at home with his mom and a fractured leg, and I really want to call the actor who played him, Duane Davis, and see if he's okay, because dude looks real fucking depressed. The Timberwolves win the Eastern Athletic Conference title—although the film doesn't reveal which Bowl Coalition they're invited to—but that's about it. No amount of thrilling #EACtion can get you to care about this team.
It may be petty or even ageist to harp on the miscasting of Craig Sheffer as Joe Kane, but I still cannot get my head wrapped around the idea of having a 32-year-old play a college junior, no matter how hard-livin' that junior is supposed to be. At any age, Sheffer lacks charisma—he repeatedly tells his team in the huddle to "put the women and children to bed and go looking for dinner," but it scans like something he says every time he orders takeout. The character's greatest achievement was inspiring me to write a script, which steals heavily from Necessary Roughness and Everybody Wants Some!!, in which a 1993 Heisman candidate says he's 20 but is actually older than Dan Marino.
Halle Berry, who was not yet a star, is also pretty bad here, giving a performance that makes it seem as if the only direction she was given was to talk in a high-pitched voice and waver a lot before finally choosing Omar Epps. Epps is actually quite good as Jefferson, showing flashes of what made him a serviceable Wesley Snipes replacement in Major League II, and the future Mike Tomlin doppelganger we all know and love. Kristy Swanson, whose best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with the girl who saw Ferris Bueller pass out at 31 Flavors last night, plays Joe's girlfriend, Camille.
Early on in the original cut of The Program, Joe and some other teammates leave a bar, and wind up lying on the middle of the street while traffic passes them by on either side. Several people tried to imitate this scene, and at least one teenager in Pennsylvania (and possibly one intoxicated adult in New Jersey) died in the attempt. These genuinely tragic incidents occurred at a time when movies and television were already being scrutinized for their influence on impressionable youth, which presumably made removing it an easy call. It's worth noting that removing this scene also meant leaving in a moment in which Joe Kane stands in front of a moving freight train, as well as the aforementioned scene where Lattimer tries to rape someone. Touchstone Pictures removed the game of street chicken from every print it had, but the scene in question is on YouTube, with context and an outright "Don't Try This At Home" warning from the uploader.
It's understandable that Rudy lives on in the American sports movie canon while the ostensibly more ambitious The Program is largely a footnote. The world needs more sports movies that speak truth to power, or at the very least offset the mythos and pomp that surrounds the considerably more complicated business of college sports. The Program very much wanted to be that movie, but if we can give it some points for trying to show the hypocrisy of big-time college football, it's hard to give it any credit for execution—its various storylines are so sprawling, convoluted, and most damningly boring. The missed opportunity that The Program represents is a sad one, especially given that the current climate in both Hollywood and College Football Country suggests we may go a while before seeing another movie that looks at college football with a critical eye. But I suggest you save your tears for Brian's Song, if you want to bawl your eyes out over a football movie starring James Caan. This one's not worth it.