There is an understandable amount of popular cynicism regarding sports films. “It never happens that way,” people will complain. They’ll laugh aloud at the improbability of the situation, the events that transpire, and–of course–the ending. It’s understandable why a fan of actual sports would find an archetypal sports film simultaneously entertaining and deeply flawed. There is a tension between the need to suspend disbelief and the fact that sports films are based on a perceived source of “real life” drama.
The vast majority of non-comedic sports films follow one of two formulas (which are essentially related): the unlikely, “underdog” team achieving an upset that was thought to be impossible, or the aging hero making an improbable comeback feel-good story. I am going to focus on the former. The essential elements of this story are familiar. The most important perceived difference between these films and actual sporting events is that the distinction between the “good guys” and “bad guys” is clear to everyone, rather than an arbitrary distinction based entirely on an accident of geography. The “underdog” team generally includes one player (or multiple players) who “can’t do anything right,” but undergoes a transformative experience and becomes a key figure in the team’s eventual victory. This victory, of course, comes on a last-second goal, shot, home run, touchdown, etc, or at least has some sort of dramatic, “signature ending.”
A recent phenomenon in sports movies has been “ripped from the headlines” films that depict historical events that already fulfill (or at least seem to fulfill) all or most of these criteria. One problematic example of this is the 2004 film Miracle. On the surface level, it fulfills all of the essential elements of the archetypal underdog sports film. Team USA fails to come together as a team for most of the film’s first act, culminating in a disappointing tie with the Norwegian National Team in an exhibition. Coach Brooks is livid, and forces his players to skate drills until they are beyond exhausted even after the stadium’s lights have been turned out. One of the consistent motifs of this first act has been Coach Brooks asking his players their names and who they play for, and each player has responded with the college they’ve just graduated from. After these grueling drills, Mike Eruzione finally delivers the desired response of, “I play for the United States of America.” With that, the drills are ended, and the team’s unity is dramatically established.
The film progresses in fairly predictable fashion, until of course we have the dramatic showdown between the Soviet hockey team and Team USA. With little dramatic embellishment, this game is an almost frame-by-frame replication of the actual February 22, 1980 Medal Round contest between these teams. Though there isn’t a last-second goal or save, the game does have its signature ending, with Al Michaels’ famous call, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” as the clock reached zero.
Of course, this leaves one last element, and the one the film relied most heavily upon for the majority of its drama: the “good guys”/”bad guys” dynamic. This actually would’ve been entirely achievable using elements related only to the game itself. The Soviet team had an unparalleled recent history of dominance of the sport (this was mentioned briefly), and their status as “amateur” players was, frankly, justifiably questioned (this was not.) Of course, this was not the narrative the film decided to focus on; instead, they relied on a fairly lazy reading of the frequently cited nationalist implications of the game. In essence, they reinforced the destructive Cold War mentality by depicting the Soviet team as the bad guys because… well… they were Russians! Although that was clearly the prevailing notion at the time, the film does nothing to problematize this, and in fact frequently reinforces it.
Now, make no mistake: I enjoyed this film a great deal. And, still largely caught up in the wave of post-9/11 patriotism, I ate up the nationalistic narrative that was spoon fed to me at the time. (Whereas now, I must enjoy the film in spite of that, not because of it.) It was based on a truly remarkable sports story… unfortunately, it chose not to depict it as a sports story so much as a really unnecessary 13-years-later Cold War end zone dance.
Other “ripped from the headlines” sports films have relied on similar clashes to create their drama, but have oftentimes had “bigger picture” social messages, unlike Miracle which, while entertaining in its own right, is at its core essentially a two hour-long love letter to he United States. Glory Road depicts depicts Coach Haskins and Texas Western College, the first team in NCAA history to start five black players in the NCAA Tournament, violating the “unwritten rule” that you could only play one, or in extreme cases two, black players at a time. The film has its defining dramatic moment (the closely contested championship game against Kentucky), its natural hero/villain dynamic (Kentucky and Coach Rupp, and the racist ideology they represent, which Texas Western struggles against throughout the entire film.)
Oscar-nominated Moneyball takes a different tack by making the game itself the centerpiece of the film’s drama. It brings to the big screen the frustration of small-market teams trying to compete with teams like the Red Sox and (of course) the Yankees. This frustration serves as a spectacular source of “underdog” tension, as well as giving the film a “big picture” message that relies only on the sport itself.
Unfortunately, this film is also trying to cram the narrative it wants to tell into actual historical events, and the Oakland Athletics never won the World Series under Billy Beane. In fact, what the film doesn’t show is that the Athletics once again lose in the first round of the playoffs. So the film must instead focus on Oakland’s success in the regular season. This is why, although I thoroughly enjoyed the film and its overarching message, I am not entirely comfortable with it as a sports film. The Athletics’ win streak was a remarkable feat, but it wasn’t an especially satisfying emotional climax to a sports film, especially in light of how most baseball fans view regular season baseball. No fan grows up dreaming of winning 20 regular season games in a row. I won’t argue that it didn’t matter (it certainly did), I’m just not sure it mattered enough to be the climax of a great sports film.
A League of Their Own takes a different approach than these films by loosely basing its story on the real All-American Girls Baseball League, which played during World War II. This might actually be the best approach: taking something that actually happened, but making the conscious decision to make a completely fictionalized version of it rather than trying to balance the narrative you want to construct with depicting the actual events.
What made A League of Their Own such a successful film is that not only did it have a great social message about gender equality, it was a spectacular baseball movie. It was really clear that the writers and director really “got” baseball, and allowed it to shine as much as any other aspect of the film. One particularly striking moment was during a tirade by Tom Hanks. Although the film is perhaps best known for Hanks’ outrageous declaration, “There’s no crying in baseball!” the film’s signature moment actually comes later in the film, when the main character is planning on leaving the team. She confesses that it “got too hard.” Hanks retorts, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”
Another example of this formula, minus the social message, is Hoosiers. Hoosiers follows the same “loosely based on a true story” formula, and is widely considered the prototypical underdog sports film. Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) takes over a team that seems ill-equipped for success. In this film, the “player who can’t do anything right” is actually provided by both a player and a coach. The former is Ollie, a tiny player no one expects anything from. The latter is Shooter, a player’s father who is struggling with alcoholism, whom Dale sees the potential to be an excellent coach if he can be reformed. Of course, the team shocks everyone by winning the state championship.
Other, completely fictionalized accounts have also used the game itself as the principal source of drama. Although I will not attempt a remotely exhaustive list, one great example is Major League. Major League is a baseball comedy that, like A League of Their Own, really “gets” the game of baseball, and makes the story of the improbable underdog Cleveland Indians’ race to the playoffs its centerpiece. Although it is a great comedy film, it is also a spectacular baseball film. The New York Yankees become the obvious villains due to their superior payroll and top dog status, and the film just leaves it at that.
Between A League of Their Own, Hoosiers, Major League and (to a lesser extent) Moneyball, it looks like we really have something: sports films can shine by making the sport itself the star of the film. The reasons for this should be obvious: people like watching sports because they are a natural source of drama. This also explains why, even when a sports film is spectacularly successful and beloved by fans of the sport it’s depicting, the most common complaint about it is still, “Well, of course it happened that way. It’s a movie. It never happens like that in real life.”
Doesn’t it, though?
Continued in Part II.