There are basically two types of sports movies. There are those that seem to serve no higher purpose than to get the heart pumping. They are rousing cheer squads celebrating the redeeming power of blood, sweat, tears, pain and gain. Rocky (1976) is the champ of this tradition: sentimental, simple, even simple-minded, lots of action. Then there’s the other kind. These movies aren’t really about sport at all. Like, say, Raging Bull (1980), the anti-Rocky. They are cynical and sceptical about the value of competition. Some of them don’t even pay much attention to how the game is played, or have any action in them at all. In these movies, we learn just how far you need to go when you go the distance.
What follows is a small and incomplete squad of movies that each put a little spin on five basic plot conventions of the sports film.
The Loneliness of Life at the Top of the Game
Being a winner isn’t easy. It costs too much and never lasts long. As any sports parent knows, beating the odds can be a gateway to narcissism. Which is perhaps why in the traditional sports film champs are given something more to live for. I mean, Rocky went the distance, lost the bout but got both the dog and the girl. But some of the best sports movies aren’t so keen to massage away the special kind of agony where winning isolates and makes strange the world.
Take Michael Ritchie’s superb plot-free, quasi-doco Downhill Racer (1969), where Robert Redford’s loner ski champ is a cold prat who refuses to play for the team; an iconoclast so up himself you feel like all warmth and reason has been surgically removed from his constitution. Its coruscating view of sport celebrity cults, media spin and sponsorship anticipates Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014).
In Lindsay Anderson’s masterpiece This Sporting Life from 1963, Richard Harris’ Frank Machin escapes the coal pits for a weekly well-paid beating on the icy rugby league fields of England’s working class north where he becomes a star. He demands that fame, money, and status will change his life and bring him closer to the woman he loves. It doesn’t, because Frank can’t be kind to himself so peace remains a stranger. Gritty, authentic, poetic and sadder than a season on the bottom of the table, the tormented and violent Frank is a close cousin to Jake in Raging Bull.
This plot isn’t exclusive to sports pics, but it’s certainly a battered veteran of the genre. Still, it offers some intriguing and different plays. Try out these three boxing movies:
Cinderella Man (2005) seems to be the true story of a washed-up pug, Benjamin Braddock (Russell Crowe). But the real blows to his body and soul lay outside the ring. They have to do with the cruelties – both actual and spiritual – of the Great Depression. Here boxing is social redeemer.
Million Dollar Baby (2005), one of the most popular and successful sports movies ever made, got a lot of traction out of its Hilary Swank as underdog-waitress-who-wants-to-be-boxer storyline. Eastwood plays her growly trainer and his subplot is all about coming back from being the kind of dad a daughter doesn’t want to know. So the story transforms from master-and-apprentice to father-daughter love.
Best of all comeback movies is John Huston’s Fat City (1972), because the promise of the set-up is upset by the kind of harsh wisdom that you rarely see in sports pics: there’s no big bout, the boxers piss blood, and the only winners are the promoters who make all the bread while the working class athletes take all the hits. It’s a buddy movie where the buddies never quite become pals. It’s about bottom feeder boxers: one young, Jeff Bridges, starting out, on his way up; and one older, Stacey Keach, looking for another chance to prove he’s not yet through. A movie about losers where winning really is life and death.
The underdog never fights only just to win or to prove that they can fit in: they’re competing for something bigger than themselves.
In Peter Yates’ charming Breaking Away (1979), the issue is class. The four pals at the centre of the story, including a young Dennis Quaid, are blue collar locals in a college town. They’re not at the bottom of the barrel. But they can see it. They’re dads built the town, but they’re got nothing much to look forward to, with high school now behind them and college a remote possibility; they take out their frustrations in low key anti-social behaviour. They have a chance to win back some dignity in the town’s bike marathon, the Little 500. The competition? College kids.
Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight (2000) is about an outsider who goes even farther out when she takes up boxing. Michelle Rodriguez, a tough kid of the projects, falls in love with the sport and her chief opponent, a boy called Adrian. (One of several ironic nods to Rocky.) When Rodriguez’s girl goes the distance, she’s striking a blow against racism, class and sexism in life and sports movies.
Gurinda Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham (2002) takes the pitch with the same ideals and attitudes of Girlfight, though it trades laughs for grit in its story of a London schoolgirl who pursues her football against the wishes ofher disapproving immigrant parents. Football action is sidelined.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) is about class and race, too. Set during the British Raj, the plot of this now Bollywood classic deals with a bet between poor villagers and the ruling whites. A cricket game will decide whether the locals will pay the onerous tax the Brits demand. Unlike a lot of the films here, there’s a lot of sports action. The climatic game takes up nearly 90 minutes. But then, the film runs 224 minutes.
The Game Plan
This is a plot that involves an off-the-field scheme to win. The plan can be sweet and innocent or ingenious and complicated. Or since high-end competitive sport deals with ridiculous sums of money, we could be talking of power, corruption and lies.
John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988) is set in 1919 and it deals with a true-life scandal that rocked baseball, when gamblers convinced members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series. Sayles is sympathetic to all except the hoods, and his verdict resonates with today’s similar outrages: nothing is innocent when the sport becomes a business. Everyone loses.
Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011) says that you can win major league baseball with a maths theory in a comp where winners are determined by the teams with the deepest pockets. Amongst its intriguing quirks is a hero who is a manager (and failed ball player). Handicap points for freshness since he’s played by Brad Pitt. What the movie is really about is a clash over management style: tradition vs. innovation, modernisation vs. convention. The talk is smart – it was written by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian – and the movie has the romantic air of a doomed quest.
Staying too long is the plot of George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977). Paul Newman is a past-his-prime player/coach of a loser ice hockey side who uses violence to bring back the crowds to avoid a team sell-off. The tactic works and the team begins to win; their brutal style becomes a cult. A satire on the crass, gimmick-riddled commercialisation of sport encouraged by lucrative TV sales, Slap Shot is, arguably, the funniest sports movie ever made. Written by Nancy Dowd (sister of a league hockey player), the dialogue is profane and brilliant. It’s like the Coen brothers on ice: “Everyone is on their feet yelling, ‘kill, kill,’” screams an announcer calling one bloodbath, um, game: “This is old-time hockey.”
Personal achievement is one of the rewards of competitive sport. But the truth is, in the movies, at least, no one makes it to the top on their own.
See The Damned United (2009). Together manager Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) and his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) did great things with very little in UK football, taking small losing sides and turning them into winners. But when Clough went off on his own to Leeds FC – ostensibly to settle an old score with that sides’ outgoing manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney) – he lasted only 44 days. Directed by Tom Hooper and written by Peter Morgan, this isn’t an action movie but a deeply emotional chamber piece about a talented show pony who needs a quiet achiever to complete his game.
Jake La Motta (Robert de Niro) in Raging Bull needed both his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and the mafia to make middleweight champion. His own demons tore him down. Raging Bull isn’t really a movie about boxing: the bouts here are so bloody and torrid you can’t tell who’s ahead, and winning isn’t the point; the punishment you give and take is what matters. For Jake, the ring is where he pays for his sins.