Stealing Home: The Spirit of Sports Movies


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The Jackie Robinson biopic 42 came and went in cinemas earlier this year, which is a shame as it’s by no means a terrible film. I suspect that it didn’t succeed because like many biopics, it has to cram a person’s life into two hours. When it is a ‘great man’, the film is doubly cursed: 42 is in awe of its subject, and it’s perhaps a little too worthy for our cynical age.

Everything about it looks right; the cars and costumes seem authentic, but it’s filmed in a haze of warm colours and begs to be taken seriously. It practically screams ‘THIS IS AN IMPORTANT PIECE OF HISTORY!” Coming from Brian Helgeland, who made the historically inauthentic but highly entertaining A Knight’s Tale (another sports film, come to think of it, but one that had a sense of fun), this is unfortunate.

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Several aspects of 42 are worth noting. As Branch Rickey, the irascible owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Robinson, Harrison Ford gives one of his better performances in some time, even if at moments it seems like he’s channeling Wilford Brimley in The Natural.

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Indeed, the film invites several unfavourable comparisons to The Natural; it ends with Robinson scoring a triumphant home run and jogging around the diamond in slow motion, the score swelling triumphantly, that can only remind you of a similar scene in Barry Levinson’s film. There’s another moment when Ford adjusts the blinds in his office that simply reminds you why The Natural is a better-lit, better-made film.

In most aspects 42 cleaves to the truth; the bigotry that Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) had to endure, the name-calling, the baiting. Robinson is told at several points to turn the other cheek, and he does; he’s ennobled to the point that it comes as sweet relief when he finally loses his cool and smashes his bat against the wall. Others take it upon themselves to stand up to his bullies, which of course only incenses Robinson more.

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Watching it, though, something seemed off to me, but I couldn’t decide what. It was only after the film was over that I realised what it was. It’s just too damn clean. I don’t think I saw a single piece of litter on any street or a dust-mote in the air. And nobody smokes. Ford has a cigar, but for most of the film it’s an unlit chewed-up stogie that he brandishes at everyone around him.

Mad Men has spoiled us all for period authenticity. It’s a shock not to see cigarette smoke in the air in an otherwise fine period piece. But it’s becoming more and more common: Have you noticed the disclaimer that has started to appear at the end of films recently? “The Global Motion Picture Company and its affiliates does not endorse the use of tobacco products ….”

42 is certainly worth a look, though, and it does fall neatly into the tradition of inspiring, uplifting sports films. A brief list of some inspiring sports films:

Pride of the Yankees The sports movie as tearjerker, and not a terribly good film. Few will remember much about it, other than the oft-quoted and oft-imitated speech, and the fact that Gehrig had a personality, life and death that seemed tailor-made for Gary Cooper

Somebody Up There Likes Me A young Paul Newman getting all methody, or as methody as Paul Newman gets, in a biopic of boxer Rocky Graziano, filmed in a harshly lit melodramatic style

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Rocky Stallone played probably the most under or all underdogs in a film that still feels fresh after almost thirty years. It manipulates you at every chance and is all the better for it.

Chariots of Fire Various upper class English twits train for and compete at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Athletes were a different breed back then because they smoke like chimneys, and if quaffing champagne was an Olympic event they would win handily. Set against this are the film’s two protagonists, Ben Cross as an English Jew with a chip on his shoulder, and Ian Charleson as a Scottish muscular Christian who won’t compete on the Sabbath. If you’ve never seen it, you may wonder what all the fuss is about, but the script does have sharp observations about the British class system and what it means to be “sporting”. In many ways this is the Oxbridge cousin of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Oh, and then there’s the music by Vangelis.

Escape to Victory John Huston directed this, but you’d never know it. It’s a flabby mess of a film, in which prisoners in a POW camp (including actors Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone alongside footballers Pele and Bobby Moore) play football against the German national team. If The Great Escape had been scripted by the people who wrote the old Roy of the Rovers comic, it would be this movie.

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Eight Men Out Uplifting in spite of itself: a film about underdogs who – through greed, stupidity and cynicism – stay under. John Sayles wrote and directed this marvellous, engrossing drama about Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series. The players in the gambling scheme are victims rather than villains, and this is probably the best baseball film ever made. The terrific ensemble cast includes John Cusack, David Strathairn, Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd, John Mahoney, and Sayles himself as sports-writer Ring Lardner.

The Natural Bernard Malamud’s novel about corruption in baseball and what it means for the American Dream is a downer of a book with a melancholy ending. Barry Levinson’s film aims for the mythic significance of the game in the public psyche, but still manages to keep it earth-bound with a realistic period look in a film filled with cigar smoke and the stink of the locker-room.

Field of Dreams A farmer builds a baseball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, and ghostly ball players show up – including Shoeless Joe – in a film about forgiveness and redemption. Easy to sneer at, certainly, and very much a film of its time, with 1960s liberals trying to survive 1980s values, but still an effective entertainment. If you build it, he will come. 

Bull Durham Costner again, more tarnished, over the hill and playing for a run-down ball club. He mentors doltish Tim Robbins and lies down with earthy Susan Sarandon

Major League Come on, what’s not to like about this?

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Hoosiers. You don’t need to know anything about basketball to enjoy this. For many, this is simply the best sports drama ever made, with solid performances all around. One of Gene Hackman’s best, and Dennis Hopper was seldom better.

Friday Night Lights In Texas everything stops for football. You might skip this if high-school sports don’t interest you, but then you would miss a remarkably well-made and well-acted film from actor-director Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Hancock)

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Remember the Titans Like 42, another true-life tale of overcoming prejudice on the sports-field, this time about an integrated high school American football team. It telegraphs its emotions: at one point tough-but-fair coach Denzel leads the kids on a run that ends at Gettysburg. A Disney production with feel-good values, salvaged somewhat by Will Patton. Watch out for then-Mousketeer Ryan Gosling.

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Moneyball A look at the locker-room wheeling and dealing at a struggling baseball team, and how a revolutionary system of valuing players changed the sport. I’ve suffered through several Jonah Hill movies; he makes up for all of them here as Brad Pitt’s brainy sidekick.

The Fighter A gritty, foul-mouthed depiction of Boston boxer Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) as he struggles in the ring and out, mostly with his wayward drug-addicted brother, rail thin, hyper Christian Bale. Like Rocky meets Panic in Needle Park

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