Sport In The (Home) Cinema – Ten Films To Watch
My top ten sporting films listed below range across nearly 40 years of cinema and a wide cross-section of sports. They are a personal selection that won’t please every taste. But I believe that each of them reveals something essential about the nature of sporting competition.
There’s drama, there’s tragedy, there’s technical accomplishment – all meaty ingredients as cinematic material. But the extremes of sport – putting a lifetime ambition into running fastest, leaping highest or just holing golf balls in the least number of strokes – tend also to comedy. The world record performance, the winner’s trophy, the dangling medal, even the million-dollar cheque, seem sometimes not quite commensurate with the seriousness of the physical and emotional journey needed to attain them. For many denigrators, it’s laughable that so much attention, and money, attaches to contests that are essentially trivial, that have no purpose beyond themselves. As someone hooked on sport for over 60 years, I can only agree: that’s what’s good about it.
Chariots of Fire
(1981) Vangelis’ pounding anthem provides the musical backingto a stirring opening sequence as the determinedly amateur ranks of British Olympian athletes train barefoot on a sandy beach – a time when sporting heroes mingled with ordinary folks and wouldn’t run on Sundays if that offended against the principles of the Kirk. The year was 1924, the principal protagonists idealised versions of real life gold medallists Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. The purity of the Olympic ideal is paramount.
(1996) Golf is a discipline that requires both a high level of self-control and extreme physical relaxation, then demands that you combine these qualities with obedience to elaborate rules of etiquette. So it’s ripe for demolition by Adam Sandler, exercising manic charm as an ice hockey player suspended for violent conduct who adapts his talents to the primly moneyed American golf circuit. The humour is varied, like Mr Sandler’s game: some crude sequences, but others slyly puncturing the pomposity of pro sport.
Battle Of The Sexes
(2017) An engaging account of the notorious challenge match staged in 1973 between Billie-Jean King, feminist champion who had spearheaded the demand for equal prize money on the pro tennis circuit, and long-retired male player-cum-showbiz-hustler Bobby Riggs. What could have been played as an earnest anti-sexist treatise becomes a knowing romp featuring brilliant lead performances by Emma Stone and, especially Steve Carell (the Ricky Gervais-equivalent in the US version of The Office) “putting the show back in chauvinism”.
(2018) Another fictionalised re-telling of a famous sports story, the rivalry between two American figure skaters, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, which culminates in a physical assault on the latter in 1994 in the run-up to a world championship. Tonya, played with huge commitment by Margot Robbie, comes from the wrong side of the tracks, with a tiger mother from hell and a boundless capacity for self-destruction. You’ll be cured forever of wanting your child to become a sports star.
(2019) A straight biographical documentary of the football legend and cocaine-abuser, made by the makers of Amy – a similar mixture of live performances, voice-overs, press/fan reactions and narrative commentary. The football, focussed on Diego Maradona’s five tumultuous years at Napoli, including two world cup campaigns for Argentina, is sensational; the personal story – descent from god-like status to near-universal hate figure – is heart-breaking.
(2015) I haven’t donned boxing gloves since the age of nine, and never cared for any previous products of the Rocky franchise; nor, on the whole, for the self-pitying brutalities of other cinematic visits to the ring. But this post-Rocky spin-off shows Sylvester Stallone still retaining a screen aura, and ends with an aspect of British culture that doesn’t often get depicted in Hollywood scripts – a rabidly hostile crowd of drunken Liverpudlians howling obscenities before the culminating fight scene staged at Goodison Park. It’s mostly feel-good, even for those who think boxing is a sport past its sell-by date.
(1993) Another Olympics film: a quartet of Jamaican sprinters fail to qualify for their country’s track team for the 1988 summer games in Seoul and re-train instead as a bobsleigh team to compete in the Calgary winter version. Other than the fact that a Jamaican team with minimal experience did actually compete at Calgary, there’s not much real life basis for the plot lines in the film, but so what? It’s played with a wonderful insouciance as our heroes, guided by a maverick American coach, experience the extremes of the Canadian climate and the incredulity of rival ensembles. Feel-good factor unmatchable.
Mike Bassett: England Manager
(2001) Probably not on many people’s ‘best of’ list, but a pleasure to demonstrate that the English can extend a sense of humour even to the failings of their international football team. Don Revie, Graham Taylor, Steve MacLaren, Glenn Hoddle, Sven Goran Erikson…. The list of baffled managers of under-performing squads in World Cups and European Championships over half a century since 1966 is joined here by a foul-mouthed and scruple-free Ricky Tomlinson – and who’s to say he wouldn’t have done a better job? Though not perhaps in the manner satirised here.
(2011) I’ve never played baseball and only ever watched a pro game once, so the finer points of this film are no doubt lost on me. But management of a team that is struggling against the odds is a theme that encompasses many sports. Here Brad Pitt, cast as general manager of the low-ranking Oakland ‘A’s club, adopts a novel recruitment policy for the 2002 season that relies on computer stats rather than the traditional scouting system. The consequences for everyone involved – players, coaches, scouts, fans and the manager’s own family – are played out with cool detachment and a minimum of sentimentality: the business of sport for grown-ups.
Touching the Void
(2004) Most people don’t see climbing mountains as a competitive sport, but two Brits, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, certainly did. They specialised in peaks that not merely had nobody else managed to get to the top of, they preferred those where predecessors had died in the attempt. In 1985 they ascended Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes successfully but found themselves in extreme peril on the descent, apparently only survivable if Simon cut Joe’s rope above a precipice. It takes time to build empathy for the characters in this film reconstruction – why invest emotion in such a suicidal mission? But once the accident happens, you get sucked in fast.
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