Sport is ancient and popular, and has been an important part of our various cultures and societies for as long as cultures and societies have existed. Little wonder, then, that sport should have seen a lot of representation in modern culture through cinema, though, given the popularity and pervasiveness of sport, perhaps not so much as one might expect.
It has been posited by many that a large number of sports films don’t have a broad appeal due to unfamiliarity with the featured sport, but I’d strongly disagree, or at least argue strongly that that need not be an impediment to enjoyment: the audience not understanding the offside rule, not appreciating the significance of a three ball, two strike count with two outs and bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, or not appreciating the subtleties of why one man did a better job of punching his opponent in the face than his opponent did to him are, for the most part, irrelevant. And that’s because in most sports films the sport really isn’t the point; it’s a hook, a framework on which to hang a much more universal story.
Usually the sport itself is an allegory for the exploration of something else, and the nature of sports, whether the discipline and training needed, drive and temptation, the perennial appeal of an underdog or the “get knocked down, get yourself back up again” mentality needed to succeed, lend themselves well to many narratives.
In this episode we’re going to look at six films featuring six different sports, and representing many of those things I have just mentioned. We’ll look at a fairly straightforward biopic; sporting rivalry where respect is maintained; a desire to win at all costs, and the toxicity that generates; sport as a force to unite and inspire a nation; passion, choice and independence; and sport as a means to improve one’s life.
Baseball has, of course, been formally recognised by the U.N. as the world’s most boring sport, if you can call grown men hitting a ball with a stick a sport. Baseball “games”, if something so antithetical to fun can be called a game, often stretch on for upwards of forty hours, making it only slightly less reprehensible a pastime than cricket.
I hadn’t seen Pride of the Yankees, a biopic of famed slugger Lou Gehrig until just the other day, despite it being something of a touchstone for the genre.
Gehrig, for the uninitiated, which I would have counted myself among until, well, just the other day, is one of baseball’s most successful baseballmen, hitting many baseballs with his baseballstick and running, running, running in a circle, like a dog chasing his tail, were it a dog with a unnaturally large radius. Sorry. I may not be giving the sport the respect it thinks it deserves. Let’s try again.
Lou Gehrig was born at the turn of the 20th century to humble, if not dirt poor origins, and discovered he had a talent for baseball at a young age. Despite the wishes of his mother (Elsa Janssen) to go into a more respectable profession, he winds up pursing baseball firstly on a college scholarship and then, after some largely skipped over turns in the minor leagues, as a member of the New York Yankees, alongside other legends like Babe Ruth.
Ruth plays himself in this biopic, but Gehrig is played, charmingly, by Gary Cooper, making his first Fuds On Film appearance, I think. We must cover more films of this era. While, unavoidably, this film must mention his career, it does taking something of a back seat – Gehrig’s achievements being fresh in the mind of contemporary audiences – and covers more his relationship with his family and wife Eleanor (Teresa Wright).
Gehrig had, by any standards, a remarkable career, and even as someone who understands very little of the statistics thrown around in the sport, it’s clear that he’s one of the all time great baseballmen. This film’s not tasked with hammering home quite how remarkable a career, so it may require anyone not familiar to the sport to take on a bit of extra-curricular research in that regard, but it does a great job of showing Gehrig as a nice a human being as there is.
Being a cynical bastard, and, well, just look at the timing, released just a year after the much-loved sportsman’s death from a motor neuron disease that in the U.S at least became synonymous with him, it’s clear that this is more of a homage than a tough, investigative piece of muck-raking. It’s glossed over certain facts that more hay might have been made of, were this released with some distance from this death. For example, his father’s alcoholism is not mentioned here, and one presumes it had at least some impact on Gehrig’s childhood.
That said, there were plenty of tales of Babe Ruth’s rambunctiousness around at the time, and it seems that no-one is coming forward with any hushed-up tales of Gehrig slaughtering puppies, so perhaps its true that Gehrig was, more or less, as The Pride of the Yankees suggests – a nice guy, who lived a happy life, quietly doing nice things for people with no expectation of being lauded for it, who had his life cut sadly short by a horrible disease.
The Pride of the Yankees achieves handily what it sets out to – lauding the life and times of a much loved sportsman. It’s light on drama and conflict, I suppose, so if it’s a rip-roaring rollercoaster you’re after then this isn’t the film for you, and it’s perhaps too hagiographic for some in this age of snark. It’s a roundly positive elegy for Gehrig, and rather like the man himself, I’ve got very little negative to say against it.
It’s always seemed to me a strange thing that the world’s most popular sport has never been featured more often on the cinema screen. Perhaps it’s because the structure of an individual match lends itself less well to dramatic structure and imperative than, for example, many US sports, whose seemingly limitless stoppages allow ample opportunity for encouraging speeches or inspired tactical nous (on very much of a tangent, though most of these US sports pre-date TV, I’m sure TV executives at some point employed, or will employ, time-travel to ensure the structure of the games allowed for as many advert-filled stoppages as possible, which is surely the only thing that can explain the Superbowl requiring 4 hours for completion of 60 minutes of play).
Likewise boxing, that king of movie sports, lends itself well to dramatic conclusion, the in-built pauses allowing a steady ratcheting-up of tension. While real football of course often has unbearable tension, it only appears as a result of watching the whole match, and that is perhaps one of the reasons why some of the most successful football films (The Damned United particularly comes to mind) barely show any sporting action at all.
Yes, perhaps it’s that. Or perhaps it’s just because Escape to Victory permanently ruined it for everyone to follow. Thanks, Sly.
Still, the beautiful game does occasionally move from the sports channels to the movie channels, and so it was in Sönke Wortmann’s 2003 Das Wunder von Bern, which recounts West Germany’s unlikely triumph at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, and ties it to Germany’s re-entering of the international scene (in political and economic terms, as well as in sports), and the Wirtschaftswunder – the German economic “miracle” that saw massive, rapid, transformation and improvement in the economy and industry of West Germany in the 1950s.
We begin in Essen, in the heavily-industrial Ruhrland, where the prevailing colour, and mood, is grey. Football-mad Matthias is boot boy to Helmut Rahn, a player for Rot-Weiß Essen, who he looks at as a father figure of sorts. His real father, Richard, has been languishing in a Soviet POW camp for 11 years, and Matthias, his siblings, Bruno and Ingrid, and his mother, Christa, have made a hard, but stable, life together. Richard is released by the Soviets and allowed to return home, but his disciplinarian ways and his cold and distant manner upset the family dynamic, and he struggles to return to civilian life.
While Richard and his family try to heal, so does the West German nation, and the national football team’s qualification for the World Cup is seen as a positive, unifying and potentially uplifting common cause that the country can get behind.
Rahn is picked for Sepp Herberger’s national team, and the story divides between the team in Switzerland and Essen, where Matthias tries to follow his hero from afar while at the same time trying to learn who his father was, and is.
At the time of its release 14 years ago, there was a lot of grumbling (from English critics) about this film portraying Germany as the plucky underdogs, and questioning why we should care, and other such nonsense. To which I say two things:
1) West Germany, and later Germany Germany, may be a 4-time World Cup-winning football powerhouse now, but in 1954, and against an unbeaten in four years Hungary, with all-time great Ferenc Puskás in the side, they were the underdogs.
And 2) Shut up.
When you’re forced to live on an island where a large chunk of the population are seemingly incapable of stopping talking about Germany and 1966, this film is refreshing.
There are, though, legitimate reasons to gripe about The Miracle of Bern. While I enjoyed it, it is decidedly Hollywood in structure, and the words crowd-pleasing and mawkish would not be out of place (the father has two particularly significant and emotional scenes: the first, where he opens up to his family about his time in Siberia, is quiet and touching, but the latter, when he breaks down in tears, feels both manipulative and extraneous).
Acting-wise it’s pretty solid, with Louis Klamroth and Peter Lohmeyer as Matthias and Richard (real-life father and son) in particular sharing some strong scenes, and Johanna Gastdorf delivering strength and warmth without melodrama as Christa. Peter Franke also acquits himself well as the no-nonsense Herberger, and delivers such lines as “Der Ball ist rund und das Spiel dauert 90 Minuten” without being either too arch or too solemn about it.
But if nothing else Das Wunder von Bern portrays a time and place with which I’m not massively familiar, and it’s a football film with Germans that manages to handle the football well, doesn’t star Sylvester Stallone and isn’t Escape to Victory.
It’s also a useful reminder that people everywhere are, generally, just people. The Germans may have been the enemy from our point of view, but we’re all given the same basic equipment at birth, and a soldier in any army has a chance to suffer the same stresses, horrors and problems as any other and that, alas, is a universal human story.
Wortmann’s attempts to tie The Miracle of Bern to the Wirtschaftswunder in the onscreen text at the film’s coda are clunky at best, but he has succeeded in the rest of his film in suggesting that it could be reasonably argued that the social cohesion and the renewed hope in a defeated nation that came about as a result was a contributing factor, or at least a catalyst (it is necessarily lost to my ear, but German critics noted in particular the strong mix of regional accents present in the locker room, reflecting the fact of it genuinely being a team which represented, and united, the whole country).
Leave it to us to pick a nice breezy topic after last month’s festival of depression and still be dealing with a family’s struggle with post traumatic stress disorders from prisoner of war maltreatment, and the attendant moral quandaries of sympathising with, if in name only, a Nazi. Still, there’s a good amount to like in here, and if you can get a hold of it, it’s worth looking at.
Formula One has, of course, been formally recognised by the U.N. as the world’s most boring sport, if you can call overpaid primadonnas pootling round in a circle a sport. With races taking upwards of fifteen hours to complete, if racing is the correct term for this engine parade, it’s an only slightly less reprehensible pastime than cricket.
Rush, of course, referring to Megaman’s dog in the classic Nintendo series, tells us of the rivalry between English playboy James Hunt, a thrill seeking instinctual driver played by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Niki Lauda, a technical genius almost unhealthily obsessed with the sport played by Daniel Brühl.
It starts off with their earliest meetings in Formula Three, and their instant dislike for each other, which makes for a good setup in a biopic even if it is a total fabrication. Naughty Ron Howard and Peter Morgan. Straight to bed with no supper for you, lads.
We’re also introduced to Hunt’s turbulent marriage to supermodel Suzy Miller, and Niki’s rather less whirlwind marriage to Marlene Knaus as the pair’s careers progress towards the 1976 Formula One season, with Lauda driving for Ferrari and Hunt moving from the defunct Hesketh team to Ferrari’s near eternal F1 rival, McLaren, which resurfaces their interpersonal conflict.
It’s a tense, back and forth season, at least when distilled down to a hour, and one thrown into chaos after Lauda’s terrible crash at the Nürburgring which saw him suffer severe burns to his face and lungs. In a triumph of guts over sensibility, a still bloodied Lauda returns to racing in six weeks to try and nail down the driver’s championship, but a combination of Lauda’s sensible precaution in the season’s final race and Hunt’s recklessness and drive sees Hunt triumph, proving himself in the eyes of the world and most importantly, himself.
It’s a pleasure to revisit Rush, and is just as accessible to a non-F1 fan now as it was then. It’s no surprise that Daniel Brühl gives a great performance, perhaps a bit more so from Hemsworth, after his subsequent vanishing into Marvel’s black hole of filmmaking, but here he is very good indeed.
I believe my criticism at the time was that it doesn’t do a great job of showing the progression of time in the early running, and it still doesn’t, I suppose, but on reflection it’s just skipping through to the interesting bits, and if you’ve decided to play this us as a drama rather than a documentary, that’s fair enough. Well done Ron Howard and Peter Morgan. Come down and have your supper.
Concerns about absolute veracity aside, it’s a really enjoyable watch, and well worth your time.
Though by no means all, most sports films are about popular sports. That makes sense – there are a pretty substantial number of cricket films, but since cricket is, depending on the method of measuring, either the 2nd or 3rd most popular sport in the world, then that makes a whole heap of sense. But the popularity of a sport doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on how often, or well, that sport transitions to film (see: football). But quite a number of films have taken fairly niche sports and successfully made a compelling story out of them.
One such is Whip It, based on the sport of roller derby. There are a surprisingly large number of films based on roller skating of some kind (i.e. more than 1), but Whip It was a relatively timely one, being released just a few years after the revival of roller derby as a women-only competitive amateur sport in Austin, Texas.
Don’t ask me how the game works – I’ve seen this film three times now and I’m still none the wiser on the intricacies of scoring. I just know that there is a lot of going in a circle, many injuries, a lot of violence and somewhere in the midst of this points are, apparently, scored, one team wins and, most remarkably of all, no-one is arrested or sued. Not that it matters, of course, because the point, as it almost always is, isn’t about the sport, but about the passion.
Ellen Page’s Bliss Cavendar is a high school student whose main pastime is taking part in mother-daughter beauty pageants with her postal worker mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). These pageants are of great importance to Brooke, but to Bliss are a tedious obligation, and certainly not something that she’d choose for herself.
On a trip to Austin she discovers roller derby, a female pastime that is quite the antithesis to the genteel and mind-numbing pageant scene. In an act of (relatively mild) teenage rebellion, 17 year old Bliss lies about her age and signs up to a team called the “Hurl Scouts”. Taking for herself the nom de guerre Babe Ruthless, she soon becomes a star. That also makes her a target, and her bruises and other injuries make it very difficult for her to conceal her secret from her mother.
There’s not much original here, and nothing that happens will surprise anyone. The one time perennial losers begin to win, and care about winning. The rebellious teen butts heads with her parents, especially her mother, who want to control her life and stop her following her passion. They eventually succumb and become fans. The heroine earns the respect of her rival.
But, you know what? It’s still kind of a nice film. First-time director Drew Barrymore lacks the experience to give the film a good flow – it’s all angles and edges – but in her small onscreen role as Smashley Simpson she’s a warm presence, as is the great Kristen Wiig and Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat. Marcia Gay Harden I always find difficult to warm too, but at least she’s considerably more likeable than her character in The Mist (my internal Marcia Gay Harden weather vane – yes, of course I have one of those, don’t you? – tends to get stuck on due Mrs. Carmody).
We could have put Bend it Like Beckham in here, and said much the same things, because they’re pretty much the same film, but lack of originality aside, it’s still worth catching up on if you’ve never seen it.
Wrestling has, of course, been formally recognised by the U.N. as the world’s most exciting sport, with athletes, nay, artists like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ric Flair, Steve Austin, Necro Butcher, Kendo Nagasaki, “Above Average” Mike Sanders, Blaster McMassive and Flex Rumblecrunch delivering joy to millions. Sadly Dangal, a phenomenally successful Indian film from last year focuses not on the excellent world of Professional Wrestling, but on Amateur Wrestling, which is obviously inferior. It’s in the name, people. It might be Sport, but can it guarantee Entertainment?
Well, such frivolity aside, Dangal is based, very loosely indeed, on the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Aamir Khan), and daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari. Mahavir was a national wrestling champion, by due to what he sees as chronic underinvestment from the authorities, was never able to achieve his dream of an international level gold medal. While still involved with training local youths, he gives up on his dream in favour of a job to support his family, with the hopes of training a son to follow in his footsteps.
However, no such son is forthcoming, he and his wife having four daughters, rather churlishly leaving Mahavir dispirited. The kids grow up, as kids tend to do, but it appears that Geeta (played by Zaira Wasim as a youngster, and Fatima Sana Shaikh later on) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar and Sanya Malhotra) have inherited some of Mahavir’s fighting spirit after a schoolyard tussle. Mahavir takes this as a sign that they must be trained in the arts of wrestling, and rekindles his dreams.
It may seem cruel to put the youngsters through this intense training regime, and certainly the kids do not take well to it, but after attending an arranged marriage where the young teen bride to be laments the state of female agency in their culture, albeit in less SJW terms, the kids resolve to take this seriously both out of respect to their father and hope that it could offer a better life, and perhaps a way out of their small town.
Cue the training montages and musical numbers, as the two get better, stronger, faster and start entering competitions and winning against boys, before going on to compete at regional and national level, Geeta first, being the elder, followed not so far behind by Babita.
Geeta is tapped for international competition and is taken off to the national training camps, leaving her father’s self-built training dojo for the comfort of the dorms, and the temptation of, well, anything that’s not wrestling, the iron discipline her father instilled slipping and her new trainer, Wrongy McWrongface, wanting her to learn a very different style of wrestling that leads to a losing streak. This brings forth some conflict between Geeta and Babita, who stick up for her father’s teachings, and after some soul searching Geeta and her father reconcile and work together to go for gold.
Now, I’ve not a great deal of Indian cinema, next to nothing in fact, which is on the list of things to remedy. Of course, there’s a great deal of all kinds of cinema I’ve not seen, but mostly that’s lack of time or availability – there’s no intentionality behind it. Shamefully, there kind of is with Indian cinema, as I was afraid the Bollywood way of storytelling and the differences in culture would be to great a gap for me to give the films a fair shake.
There’s some of that showing in Dangal, I have to say. The place of women in Indian culture is inherently pretty shocking from a hardly perfect, but better than this Western perspective, and there’s a few lines in here that were brushed past in such a fashion that I assume are no at all controversial, despite them being about sexually objectifying a, what, thirteen year old, which certainly initiated a jaw/floor interface scenario.
The other problems, relatively minor, I must add, are the usual “based on a true story” qualms, which is basically the entire second half of the film, from the introduction of the moustache-twirlingly evil national coach about which I’d be royally peeved were I him, all of the conflict of the second half, and it’s frankly stupid conclusion being a complete fabrication. But, truth be damned, it makes for a fun story.
And that’s the real takeaway from Danga, it’s a really well put together, enjoyable story, with colourful characters, that’s going for more melodramatic, colourful, larger than life take on the events rather than gritty realism, and is all the more fun a watch for it.
Oh, and my other possible source of cultural confusion, the soundtrack, was a complete non-issue, and the exceptionally catchy theme in its variants is a thing of great greatness indeed. It is somewhat different from a Western perspective, I suppose, it’s used a bit like how orchestral scores would be used here to inform on the character’s feelings, expect here it’s got lyrics that spell it out explicitly. Imagine if the score for Jaws was just someone shouting “Mammy! Daddy! Bitey Fish!” over and over.
I really enjoyed Dangal, and I think you will too. Give it a look.
In the rest of the films we have covered in this podcast, sport has been either a neutral or positive presence. But sport often has a dark side, where corruption reigns, and a desire to win eliminates all other concerns, especially those ethical or moral. Performance-enhancing drugs also often feature, and no sport is so tainted by that scourge, and no one person so embodies that dark side of drugs and a whatever-it-takes mentality more than Lance Armstrong.
Stephen Frears’ The Program tells the true (please assume all usual caveats for the term “based on a true story” anywhere in the vicinity of a motion picture) story of Irish journalist David Walsh’s (Chris O’Dowd) attempt to uncover Lance Armstrong’s systematic doping that saw him win a record seven Tours de France, cycling’s most prestigious event.
Armstrong and his team (consisting of lawyers, agents, doctors and corrupt officials) ensured that positive tests were either avoided or covered-up, and rivals, witnesses and teammates were victims of intimidation and blackmail. Walsh himself was a victim, being persecuted both by Team Armstrong and his fellow journalists, being silenced by the threats of multi-million pound lawsuits and largely having both his career, and his credibility, ruined, until finally being vindicated.
In Spain this film is called El ídolo (The Idol), and its working title was Icon, both names which give clues to how, and why, Armstrong was able to get away with this for so long, and why it was such a monumental blow to so many, inside the sport and out, when the truth was finally revealed. The journalists, and the public, were awed, starstruck. The officials who turned a blind eye, at best, to Armstrong’s indiscretions did so for the same reason, and because they knew how very, very hard the fall would be when Armstrong’s star had lifted them all, and their sport, so very, very high.
Sadly, while it’s a very interesting watch, and without having to invent very much it has a wonderfully unlikeable villain to root against, The Program is never really able to get to the bottom of what truly motivated Armstrong. And maybe that’s an unfair assessment, because perhaps there is no why, at least in the way that would make for a satisfactory narrative: Lance Armstrong is a sociopath, something that is evident if you’ve seen the interviews he did with Oprah Winfrey. But I would have liked to have seen some more exploration of Armstrong’s psyche.
The film does at least does apportion some of the blame: to the gullible journalists, the unquestioning public too caught up in the movie-like narrative of the cancer survivor conquering the world, the self-interest of far too many parties.
There are some great performances here, too – O’Dowd shows he can play it straight and Jesse Plemons is believably tortured as the good Mormon boy gone bad Floyd Landis (who ultimately brought about Armstrong’s downfall). But it’s Ben Foster’s show. His portrayal of Armstrong is compelling, energetic and, frankly, a little scary. If you’ve seen any Armstrong footage, especially when he’s being asked uncomfortable questions, then you’ll marvel at how Foster has somehow managed to coax his facial muscles to move in the same way as Armstrong. It’s a very strong performance.
Less compliments can be paid to the director, though, whose direction is unfocused, and doesn’t trust the audience: the regular use of flashbacks to earlier scenes to contradict what Armstrong has just said are both distracting and unnecessary. We remember, we were paying attention. Trust in us. And talking of distractions, whether it’s a casting or direction problem I’m not sure, but Dustin Hoffman is out of place here.
The Program, though, is definitely worth a watch.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 10th with some hot grappling action, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.