Al Pacino's locker-room speech near the end of Oliver Stone's football film Any Given Sunday may not contain the complete answers to life's eternal mysteries, but it comes pretty damned close.
Outscored, outplayed, and outhustled, demoralized and deflated, Pacino seeks to motivate his athletic troops with the most over-the-top speech in the history of cinema, a speech that is more about him than about his players, and more about life itself than football. It's cornball, extravagant, unlikely, and it literally gives me chills every time I watch it.
It has a metaphor at its center that is a succint and vivid summary of all that we need to make our way through life: one play at a time, one day at a time, one step at a time.
What we need is the willigness to die for that extra inch.
"Either we heal, as a team, or we crumble. Inch by inch, play by play, until we're finished."
It's an analogy that Stone has actually stolen from himself (which all the great writers do); he uses the exact same phrasing -- the six inches in front of your face -- in his remarkable novel A Child's Night Dream, and he's recounted in numerous interviews a similar tale.
How his experience as a soldier in Vietnam left him attuned to the closeness of life and death. How a few inches to the left or to the right remained all that separated his life from that of his fellow soliders. How all we have in this world are the six inches in front of our faces.
"The inches we need are everywhere around us..."
The more I think upon that thought, the more it makes sense. I always loved this movie, and in particular this speech, but it's only as I've gotten older that I've latched onto what the speech is really saying. It's about aging, and the inches we gain or lose along the way. We move through life limited by gravity and the space we inhabit. We can never find ourselves more than a few inches away from anything or anywhere else. Our entire orbit is composed of a tactile immediacy. Its boundaries define how we view our own progress throughout the world. So little separates us from complete failure or utter ecstasy. Physically, mentally, emotionally.
A little more to the left and you lose your ability to walk. A little more to the right and you suddenly can't remember anyone around you. I lost races as a high school runner by a couple of inches, if that. Cancer cells divide and multiply an inch here and an inch there, and we watch their progress to see how many inches bigger they get on a bi-yearly basis. (From the bed to the bathroom is nothing more than a series of inches, but navigating that path while strapped to an IV tube is a perilous and frightening journey.) We live most of our lives on such a miniscule scale. The only way we can make it through is by having others help us along the way, inch by inch.
"You know, when you get old in life, things get taken from you. That's, that's, that's part of life. But you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out that life's this game of inches..."
What's mesmerizing about Pacino's speech is that it runs an entire arc: we start off in the darkness of defeat, and then realize the path to victory and transcendence relies on the kindness of others to fight for those same inches that limit and impede our own progress. Jamie Foxx's character, a selfish, show-off quarterback, begins the speech rolling his eyes at yet another rant by his blowhard coach. By the end, he's walking across the room straight towards Pacino -- a disciple, a follower, a believer.
"On this team, we fight for that inch..."
The scene works because of Stone's writing, Pacino's performance, and the music. Mostly, the music. You would think a grand orchestral cacophony of trumpets and drums would accompany such a triumphant spiel by Pacino, but no -- Stone is wiser than that, and a better filmmaker than that. Pacino's macho (yet vulnerable) bravado is offset by gentle, soothing, almost lovely music. It's understated in the way that Pacino himself, without the music, could never be. It's the perfect aural counterpoint to the verbal explosives the coach is firing. It raises the scene to a level of romanticism that is at once utterly incongrous but perfectly appropriate. (Despite what the media would have you believe, Olive Stone is, at heart, a poet.)
"The inches we nead are everywhere around us..."
The six inches in front of our face. That's all we have.
But if I'm willing to die for that extra inch, and you're willing to die for that extra inch, then perhaps together we can ascend.