I. The Psychology of “We”
“There’s no way we’re losing,” I assured my friend.
The two of us sat in a sports bar, staring at a gigantic TV. A baseball game was on.
It was October 2007. The Boston Red Sox—our team—had been scuffling against the Cleveland Indians in a best-of-seven playoff. Having dropped three straight, the Sox were up against some pretty serious odds.
A waitress approached and we ordered, only briefly looking away from the TV.
“We just need to get through this inning,” I said to my friend, “and then we’ve got the heart of our order coming up.”
A little bemused, the waitress asked, “Why do sports fans always say ‘we?’ As if, like, you’re actually a part of the team?”
My friend and I laughed this off. We were too caught up in the game to consider an answer.
But the question was valid. Why do sports fans always say “we?”
The truth is that, to an ardent fan, there is no meaningful distinction between “we” and “the team.”
Psychology has a term for this sort of high-level attachment. It’s called “fan identification.” In the mind of a highly identified fan, self-image is inextricably connected with the success of the franchise. If our team prevails, we get to bask in reflected glory; their victory feels like our accomplishment. This sense of shared triumph enhances our self-esteem, makes us more confident in our own worth.
And we say “we won” even though, in actuality, we haven’t won a thing.
II. Everybody’s Always So Mean
In 2009, Big Fan was released to mostly positive reviews, but audiences greeted the film with a shrug. It grossed $234,540 (against an estimated budget of $5,000,000) and was summarily consigned to the home viewing market, where it languished in relative obscurity.
Twelve years on, however, this excursion into the psyche of an alienated sports fan plays like a prophetic warning. The movie seems to have anticipated a number of the more ruinous social pathologies that now plague this country, from the incoherent angst of working-class white men to the epidemic of loneliness engulfing them. Even the modern conception of political identity as one more form of team loyalty feels like a natural outgrowth of the film’s standoff between rival fans.
We have come to inhabit a nation of angry voices, all shouting each other down. The toxic histrionics of sports talk have been mainstreamed. Total strangers perform their outrage in the most public forums while the rest of us serve as a captive audience, and life wears on like some endless call-in show.
We are all living in the world of Big Fan now.
III. Paul From Frickin’ Staten Island
When Patton Oswalt signed on to star as Paul Aufiero, the movie’s titular sports fan, he was primarily known for his work as a stand-up comedian and for his supporting role on The King of Queens. He had appeared in a slew of features (among them Magnolia and Man on the Moon) and had provided the voice for Remy in Pixar’s Ratatouille, but Big Fan was the multi-hyphenate’s first lead role as a dramatic actor. He turned out to be a revelation in the part, inhabiting his schlubby character without vanity and delivering a subtle, effective performance.
For Oswalt, a well-known film enthusiast, the project felt like a throwback to the American New Wave. The script by director Robert D. Siegel reminded him of the raw, downbeat character studies of the 1970s, films like Fat City and Blue Collar—grungy, lived-in portraits of hopeless loners circling the fringes of society. “That’s what attracted me to it,” Oswalt explained when the film came out. “I knew that it was going to have that great, gritty early ‘70s feel.”
Frank and uncompromising, Big Fan palpably evokes the mood of that era. In particular, it comes across as a spiritual successor to both The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, a pair of New Hollywood psychodramas about troubled, blundering men desperate to make their mark on a completely indifferent world. These two Martin Scorsese films are each centered on a hapless sad sack who is emotionally stunted, deeply isolated, and self-involved to the point of delusion. As has often been observed, Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle are cinematic cousins (each is played by Robert De Niro). And there are strains of both in the character of Paul Aufiero.
Like Rupert Pupkin, Paul still lives at home, under the watchful eye of an oppressive mother. At 35, both men seem to exist in a perpetual state of immaturity, and both are steeped in denial. (In spite of his dismal circumstances, Paul keeps telling people that he is content.) Like Rupert, Paul lacks a firm grip on reality. And, like Rupert, he is warped by an imagined connection with a celebrity. While Rupert speaks to a life-size cutout of a talk show host, Paul sleeps beneath a huge poster of a football star. Eventually, each takes his fandom to a disturbing extreme.
Just as Travis Bickle is routinely sealed off from the world, alone in his cab, Paul’s solitary job at a parking garage leaves him cloistered in a glass booth. While Travis pours his anger into a diary, Paul vents his bitterness into scripted fan rants, which he scratches out in longhand and then reads aloud on a call-in sports show. (On the radio, he goes by the nickname “Paul from Staten Island.”) Like Travis, Paul lies awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. Each is plagued by dark thoughts and a swelling sense of grievance.
As instructive as these comparisons may be, though, where Paul ultimately differs from his New Hollywood antecedents is in his complex capacity to forgive. In a way, who we choose to forgive—and why—are what Big Fan is really about.
IV. An Unfortunate Misunderstanding
At the heart of the movie is a sequence in which Paul, out on a drive one night, spots his favorite NFL player—fictional New York Giants hero Quantrell Bishop—and heedlessly decides to shadow him. The starstruck fan pursues the sports celebrity all the way from a Staten Island gas station to a Manhattan strip club, where he finally works up the nerve to introduce himself as an admirer. In his excitement, he lets it slip that he has been following Quantrell, and the linebacker flies into a rage. He accuses Paul of stalking him, then beats the poor chump into unconsciousness.
Remarkably, when Paul wakes up in a hospital, severely bruised and bandaged, his most pressing concern is not for himself, but for his team; informed that three days have passed, he realizes he has missed the Giants’ Sunday game, and his first thought is: How did we do?
His only friend, another sports-obsessed loser named Sal (played by Kevin Corrigan as a good-natured oddball), is there to break the news: the Giants did not win and, what’s worse, the police are looking into the incident at the strip club; pending the investigation, Quantrell has been suspended. Paul instantly recognizes that without their most important player, his beloved team is doomed. And he holds himself entirely responsible for what has happened.
Paul’s brother, a sleazy personal injury lawyer, hectors him to file an assault claim against Quantrell. “I know you’re a fan of this guy,” he tells Paul, “but you gotta stop looking at him as some kind of fuckin’ hero.”
Paul declines to sue, though. Instead, he stubbornly defends Quantrell and excuses the athlete’s actions. He characterizes the beating as “an unfortunate misunderstanding,” insisting, “This was not an attack.” And he rebuffs the inquiries of a New York detective who is determined to hold Quantrell accountable. He simply will not do or say anything to implicate the star of his favorite team. And this headstrong refusal to betray his idol lays bare the crucial distinction between Paul and the De Niro characters mentioned above.
Like Paul, Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle each encounter a well-known personality; each of those encounters ends in humiliation, and each man then seeks to punish the public figure who has rejected him. But, in contrast to both, Paul does not turn against his celebrity idol.
In The King of Comedy, after aspiring comic Rupert is brushed off repeatedly by late-night host Jerry Langford, he takes Langford hostage at gunpoint. Similarly, in Taxi Driver, after Travis has a chance meeting with Senator Charles Palantine that leaves him feeling slighted, he starts plotting to assassinate Palantine.
But Paul never seeks to punish Quantrell. For that matter, he never concedes that Quantrell has wronged him in any way. While Rupert and Travis are fans whose spurned devotion turns violent, Paul remains unswervingly loyal to his hero. And in this respect the narrative arc of Big Fan seems almost eerily prescient.
V. He’s Our Asshole
Viewed through a contemporary lens, Paul’s unshakable allegiance to Quantrell Bishop calls to mind nothing so much as the abject fealty of Donald Trump’s supporters. As the disgraced ex-president’s most diehard fans have amply demonstrated, they will forgive him for absolutely anything. When Trump’s apologists stick up for him, they even use the kind of language that sports fans use to condone the antics of a star who plays for their team. (A few years ago, a GOP Congressman, attempting to defend Trump, employed the old adage of the excuse-making fan: “He’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.”)
Donald Trump’s fan base has stood by him through the worst of his offenses for the same reason that Paul Aufiero steadfastly refuses to disavow Quantrell Bishop. Their worship of him makes them feel like part of something larger than themselves.
And this speaks to one of the most striking phenomena in modern America: the way in which an intense team mentality has come to permeate the country’s political culture. With each new election cycle, we treat the process more and more like a zero-sum game, and our politics are further reduced to a glorified sports rivalry. “Left” and “Right” even wear their own colors.
In this highly polarized environment, the most noxious symptoms of sports fan culture—a lack of civility, a sense of superiority, a powerful contempt for the other side—have come to dominate our national life. Fervent Trump cultists insist on the supremacy of their side. And they tend to cope with defeat by deflecting the failure of their own team onto the opposing team’s supporters.
Which is exactly what Paul Aufiero does.
VI. Listen Up, Philadelphia Phil
In forgiving Quantrell Bishop, Paul deploys the same psychological defense mechanism he uses whenever the Giants lose: he transfers his feelings of disappointment and anger, redirecting them toward another object.
During his regular segments on the “Sports Dogg” show, while sounding off in support of his team, Paul often spars with an unseen adversary—a pugnacious Eagles fan and frequent caller nicknamed “Philadelphia Phil” (inveterate trash-talker Michael Rapaport). As Paul grapples with the attack on him by his favorite athlete, it is this rival fan who becomes the target of his displaced aggression.
The film’s climax is triggered by Phil’s on-air revelation that “Paul from Staten Island” and the victim of the Quantrell Bishop assault are, in fact, one and the same. Phil has done some internet sleuthing and deduced that Paul Aufiero is the sap who “got beat up by his favorite player” and, in a final humiliation for Paul, Phil gleefully makes this discovery known to the show’s listeners.
Intent on confronting his nemesis, Paul impulsively drives to Philadelphia. On the way, he stops off in a rest area bathroom, where he removes his well worn Giants hat, dons a newly purchased Eagles jersey, and paints his skin with that team’s colors. As he coldly regards himself in the mirror, his face a grim, white-and-green mask, we have the feeling that he is about to commit an unspeakable act of violence.
Appropriately disguised, he heads to the South Philly bar that Phil is known to frequent. Identifying Phil by the sound of his voice, Paul follows him into the men’s room, blocking the door and pulling out a gun. At point-blank range, Paul fires off a fusillade of shots. In complete shock, Phil collapses. He looks down at his hands and sees they are covered in red and blue—the Giants’ team colors. Slowly, he registers that he has been shot with paintballs and that he is, in fact, unharmed. With a cry of “Eagles suck!” Paul flees the bar. Moments later, out on the sidewalk, he is tackled by police and arrested.
Thus Paul completes the process of transference. Having been harmed by a figure he worships and cannot bring himself to blame, he has found an acceptable scapegoat in Phil. By substituting this minor rival for his idol, Paul has enabled himself to forgive Quantrell. And he has gone through a series of psychological contortions in order to alleviate the cognitive dissonance that all of this entails.
VII. To Forgive Is Divine
The movie’s coda finds Paul in prison, where he is visited by his friend Sal. The two of them make small talk; Sal shares the schedule for the upcoming NFL season. Paul learns that an important Giants game is set for the week of his release. His face lights up.
At the conclusion of this scene, the film cuts to black and John Prine’s “Sweet Revenge” kicks in over the credits. Prine sings, “I turn my cheek to unkind remarks,” alluding to what is perhaps the world’s best-known endorsement of forgiveness and self sacrifice. Siegel’s choice to end the film with a song referencing the New Testament is telling. The implication seems to be that Paul sees himself as some kind of martyr. Quantrell’s attack on him is, in New Testament terms, a grievous insult, a public affront to his dignity. And yet Paul “turns the other cheek,” come what may. Critic Nathan Rabin has written that “Paul transcends mere devotion and becomes Christ-like in his suffering. He all but dies for one New York Giant’s sins and finds the grace to forgive him.”
In the end, Paul is able to carry out this self-sacrificing act of forgiveness because, as far as he is concerned, he and Quantrell Bishop are part of the same team. But the film makes it clear that Paul Aufiero is more than a little deluded—while reminding us that, when we take any kind of fandom too far, we do so at our peril. After all, heroes are never infallible. And sometimes it’s hard to know when, or how, to forgive.