A majority of us have never effectively played more than two or three sports and likely never go out of our way to watch them other than passively accepting what we are fed over the television. So how do films about sports accomplish the unusual task of entertaining audiences who may never have played or who may not even be interested in that particular sport? They do it by transferring the technical aspects of the sport into the lives of the characters, playing on the competitive aspect and the need to win. They throw in the business dealings of promoters and owners – often at odds with the protagonist – or examine the complications of reconciling a sporting life with a social or family life. Then you have the pressures of fans, the upstart who is panting at your heels waiting to replace you, and that other-worldly tension that freezes the outside world when the starter raises his pistol and says, “SET…”
I don’t have the stats, but I would imagine that baseball is one sport that may have been enhanced by movies that have gone a long way to romanticize the game (The Natural, Field of Dreams, Pride of the Yankees, et al), by playing heavily on the nostalgia aspect. On the other side, boxing has definitely been made to appear more brutal than is normally the case in an average match. American football in cinema isn’t so much about the game as it is about the team and the individual’s role within it, similar to basketball movies. And most other sports get short shrift – unless you search them out. There are good movies out there where a football (soccer) pitch is the backdrop, but the most popular sport in the world has yet to be the subject of a bona fide film classic. Hockey usually gets relegated to second-rate comedies and MMA – barely 20 years old – has yet to be the subject of anything particularly memorable, Fight Club and Warrior aside.
To attain a level playing field for this genre, which is SPORTS, I’m imposing a no multiple-dipping rule; that is, to include only a single entry for a specific sport (sorry baseball and boxing, just one apiece). They are about the game: the mindset, training and the adrenaline of competition, and how it plays with business aspects, players on their way up (or down) the ladder, and fans obsessed with the whole thing.
Bull Durham Ron Shelton (1988)
Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is a devotee of the Church of Baseball; i.e. she’s a mature groupie who “adopts” a player each season and personally tutors him on the game – and life skills – she knows so well. “Nuke” and “Crash” (great names, btw) vie for her attention in Shelton’s unusual take on baseball that is very smart, indeed. Tim Robbins is appropriately goofy as Nuke, the talented up-and-comer who is quite happy to be led around by his ****. Kevin Costner plays the struggling veteran, Crash, in one of his best performances as the man who has seen it all and says as much. Shelton wrote one of the finest scripts of the 80s that encompasses game stats, the competitive spirit and, of course, sex. Interesting note: although they played rookie and veteran players, only three years of age separate Robbins and Costner.
Fat City John Huston (1972)
Whenever directors want to use a sport to drive home harsh realities, boxing seems to be the pounding of choice. The term “fat city” is slang for that unattainable goal, and John Huston’s dark film doesn’t spare either the has-been trying to get back in the ring (Stacey Keach) or the hopeful newbie setting-off on a career (Jeff Bridges). This is one of Huston’s most visually detailed films, much of it filmed at night or in dark bars, with an array of supporting characters headed by a mostly soused Oma, played by the amazing Susan Tyrell. This is one of those many great 70s films that isn’t afraid to tell you that the game of life, like boxing, is fixed, so enjoy the ride to nowhere. Gawd, I miss some good old-fashioned cynicism in movies these days. It’s good for the soul.
Breaking Away Peter Yates (1979)
As an antidote for the nourish smoky dark of Fat City we burst out into the bright sunlight and fresh air with Peter Yates enthusiastic tale of Dave (Dennis Christopher) and his infatuation with competitive cycling and, in particular, Italian racing. His dedication is so deep that he studies everything Italian, listens to Italian music and even begins to learn the language, using it on his befuddled breadbasket parents at every opportunity. In this case the sport is presented as a glamorous escape from the humdrum Midwest. Some small-town drama aside, this is a breezy, wind-in-your-hair boost that was nominated for five Oscars, winning for Steve Tesich’s good-natured screenplay, beating heavyweights Manhattan, All That Jazz, …And Justice for All, and China Syndrome.
Downhill Racer Michael Ritchie (1969)
Director Michael Ritchie loved to go after those sacred cows like politicians (The Candidate), beauty pageants (Smile) and children’s baseball (Bad News Bears). This was his first directorial effort and it’s a doozy of a character study of a champion skier (Robert Redford) who, despite his talents, also happens to be a narcissistic prick. The thing is, whether or not he’s of sports hero caliber, his days on top are numbered. Ritchie does some brilliant things with his camera to make you feel a part of the skiing action, from the breath-holding seconds prior to the start, then shooting down the fall line racing only the clock and yourself. He also reminds us that regardless of a win and all its glory, there is always going to be someone starting down the hill behind you.
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Tony Richardson (1962)
In the 50s and early 60s, Britain latched onto a film style that was labeled “Kitchen Sink Realism” – one of my favorite periods in filmmaking and a definite precursor, along with the French New Wave, that shoved Hollywood into its 70s heyday. They were studies of, mostly, angry young men resentfully stuck in the nether class of society and, in a couple of cases, used their skills in sports to illustrate their rebelliousness. Tom Courtenay’s character is such a lad – a skilled distance runner without much else to his name who always seems to be in trouble with the authorities. Endurance and strategy are the two key components of his sport and he translates these skills during an actual race to make a point. Sometimes winning isn’t everything.
These are five sports films that successfully maneuver the themes contained within their sports to life outside of the competitive arena. Whether lightweight or heavy in tone, sports are an effective metaphor for life. You train, you compete and sometimes you win; regardless, it’s all in the game.