Dwight D. Eisenhower thought that football was the best sport for young men to play because it was the closest sport to war. Football’s similarity to battle also explains why it has made for such excellent fodder for movies through the decades. There’s violence, bonding, competition, and plenty of drama, both on and off the field. Like war, football has also been the subject of much controversy over whether all the sacrifice and casualties are worth it.
The 17 films and documentaries listed below cover the game from all these angles and more. These gridiron-themed greats are the ones that stick with you long after you’ve watched them; they make you think, they make you laugh, and most of all, they get you pumped for taking on whatever fight you’re faced with.
Based on the book by Buzz Bissinger, Friday Night Lights follows the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, TX on which an entire town hangs its hopes and aspirations. The movie explores the sometimes toxic dynamic between communities and the high school sports teams they support. On the one hand, it’s great to see so many people get behind their young gladiators; but on the other hand, putting so much pressure on young men who aren’t even old enough to vote isn’t healthy for the boys or for the community. Out of all the movies I’ve seen about high school football, Friday Night Lights is still the one the rings most true to my own experience playing as a young man. Great action-packed game scenes, and the soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky (part of my thumos soundtrack even today) gives Friday Night Lights an epic feel.
When you’ve seen the movie, be sure to watch the television series Friday Night Lights —my all-time favorite TV show. Read my post I wrote a few years ago about the lessons I got from FNL.
Invincible (2006) Best Price: null Buy New $2.99 (as of 01:10 EST - Details) Invincible is based on the true story of Vince Papale, a 30-year-old out-of-work substitute teacher who, against all odds, makes it to the pros. After Vince’s wife walks out on him, he decides to try out for his struggling hometown football team, the 1976 Philadelphia Eagles. Vince makes the team, but the challenges just begin as he has to prove to skeptical teammates that he’s the real deal. Rock-solid cast in this movie — Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, and Elizabeth Banks — and according to Uncle Buzz, who spent some time in Philly during the 1970s, the filmmakers did a great job capturing the city’s grittiness during that decade. Great movie to remind you that it’s never too late to chase after a dream.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Any Given Sunday is Oliver Stone’s take on football and a meditation on its intersection with business, culture, and politics. The cinematography is top-notch, and the football scenes are fast-paced and chaotic. When you’re watching, you feel like you’re right on the field. And unlike a lot of football movies that just give you the two-minute highlight reel of football games, with Any Given Sunday, you get to watch huge chunks of the fictional football games with scenes ranging from 20 to 40 minutes. The film has an ensemble cast filled with heavy hitters like Al Pacino and Dennis Quaid. Jamie Foxx has a breakout performance in this movie and he put his high school football experience to good use by doing most of the game scenes himself. Any Given Sunday Buy New $3.99 (as of 03:10 EST - Details)
The Freshman (1925)
The Freshman is a silent film starring Harold Lloyd. He plays a college freshman who joins the football team to become popular. If you haven’t seen a Lloyd film, you’re missing out. One of the best physical comedic actors in cinema, second only to Buster Keaton. I typically don’t have much patience for silent movies, but this is one I really enjoy watching.
Rudy, a scrappy blue-collar kid, has a dream of playing football with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. While Rudy wasn’t blessed with the talent or the body to be a star athlete, he’s a got a lot of heart and determination. When you’re feeling like the underdog in life, sit down for a viewing of Rudy. You’ll be ready to “Play Like a Champion” afterwards.
North Dallas Forty (1979)
Our culture’s criticism of the dark side of professional football may seem like a new phenomenon, but North Dallas Forty was shining a light on it several decades ago. Another one of those gritty, 1970s sports films, the movie North Dallas Forty Best Price: null Buy New $3.99 (as of 11:35 EST - Details) depicts the exploitation inherent to the game, with athletes getting shots in their joints so they can keep playing, and owners treating the players like chattel. The screenplay was adopted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Peter Gent, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s. Critics have called it one of the best sports movies in film history.
Knute Rockne: All American (1940)
Today, Notre Dame is a dynastic football team, and Knute Rockne was the man who created that dynasty. During his time as head coach of Notre Dame from 1918 to 1930, Rockne racked up 5 undefeated seasons and 6 national championships. Knute Rockne: All American is your typical play-it-straight 1930s sports biopic. You get to watch how Knute learned to love football as a boy and then turned that love into a career as one of college football’s winningest coaches. The film also produced one of the most quoted lines in film history — a line uttered by none other than future president Ronald Reagan: “Tell them to go out there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.”
Once you’ve watched Knute Rockne: All American, be sure to read up on the real-life lessons in manliness that can be learned from this veritable renaissance man (did you know that Rockne played the flute?).