Growing up as a Chicago Bears fan, I heard the names Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo hundreds of times even though the two men played before I was even borrn. I knew that the immensely talented Sayers and the mightily determined Piccolo became great friends at a time when racial tensions were extremely high, and of course I heard of Piccolo’s courageous battle with cancer, a battle that he ultimately lost at the tender age of 26.
I’d also heard of a made-for-TV movie about their friendship called Brian’s Song, which is often hailed as one of the best sports movies of all time. I’ve always wanted to see that movie, but never actually sat down to watch it until recently, when I picked up a copy of the DVD from my library. Maybe it was all the years of hype and buildup or maybe it was the fact that the movie was made some 35 years ago, but I walked away feeling supremely disappointed by the experience.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): In 1965, Gale Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams) was the top draft pick of the Chicago Bears and came to the team amidst much buzz and great expectations. Fellow rookie Brian Piccolo (James Caan) also joined the team that year, but he came via free agency as he was undrafted out of college. Both men were running backs, so they ended up spending a lot of time together during training camp. Both made the team, were assigned to room together on the road (an unprecedented occurrence in 1965, considering that Sayers was black and Piccolo was white), and eventually became close friends.
Over the course of the next four football seasons, Sayers and Piccolo become even closer as their careers begin to take off. Sayers was named Rookie of the Year in 1965 after racking up 2,272 all-purpose yards and scoring 22 touchdowns, while Piccolo worked himself into a starting job in the backfield. The two even overcame adversity together. After Sayers went down with a serious knee injury, Piccolo made it his personal mission to help get Sayers back into playing shape — which he did.
Then it was Piccolo’s turn to run into physical issues. After suffering from fatigue, coughing bouts, and difficulty breathing, Piccolo went to a hospital for tests. Doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in his chest, and though they removed it, the cancer had already started spreading to other parts of Piccolo’s body.
The rest of the film then shows Piccolo’s final days, as both he Sayers struggle to come to terms with his imminent death.
My Reaction: As I said, I was pretty disappointed with Brian’s Song, and am having a hard time understanding why this film is consistently mentioned as one of the top sports movies of all time. For one thing, it barely even qualifies as a sports movie, as football was merely incidental to the plot. Nothing would have changed substantially if the two men had been involved in any other profession, so I’d classify this one as a (melo)drama rather than a sports film. But that’s just me.
I also thought Brian’s Song was hurt by its very short running time. I’m usually all for shorter films and realize that this movie was originally made for TV, but even so, 71 minutes was simply not long enough to develop the characters and allow the audience to form an attachment to them. I didn’t feel as though I knew Gale Sayers or Brian Piccolo any better after seeing this movie, which shows that the film didn’t serve its purpose. Yes, I know that a 1971 audience would have been far more familiar with the two players’ lives than a 2008 audience, but this still bothered me.
To make matters even worse, Caan and Williams were both incredibly stiff in their roles. Neither did a very good acting job, which served to cap off an all-around bad experience. From Caan’s jarring use of the “n” word in several scenes to Williams’ wooden delivery and exaggerated facial expressions at key moments, I often felt like I was watching an amateur production at the community theater.
Overall, Brian’s Song is simply too dated to have much of an impact on today’s audiences. I usually love sports movies and true stories, but this is definitely an exception. I give the film 2 stars out of 5.