There's a speech in the 1985 high-school wrestling film Vision Quest that sums up the essence of what sports is all about — as well as what makes a great sports film. The speech is delivered by Elmo, a middle-aged fry cook with no prospects for the future. He explains to high-schooler Louden Swain (Matthew Modine) why he shouldn't quit wrestling. Elmo describes watching a soccer player he'd never heard of jump in the air, flip into a somersault, and kick the ball, while upside-down and backward, into the goal. Elmo admits to Louden that he cried: "That's right, I start crying. Because another human being, a species that I happen to belong to, could kick a ball, and lift himself, and the rest of us sad-assed human beings, up to a better place to be, if only for a minute... Let me tell ya, kid — it was pretty goddamned glorious."The best sports films, like the best of any kind of art, lift us "sad-assed human beings" up to a "goddamned glorious" place by showing us what we are capable of. Whether it's Jesus or Jordan or Jobs, we are inspired by those people of extraordinary achievement to become extraordinary ourselves. The best sports films also use sports as a metaphor for some larger theme. The reason sports is such a rich source is that it mirrors our attempts to impose order, morality, and fair play on an otherwise chaotic and selfish world. We use sports as a training ground to teach our young moral lessons: try hard, be disciplined, play fair.
With that in mind, here are what I consider the five best American sports films, each featuring a different sport, plus why they excel, and when they commit flagrant fouls. (Warning: Spoilers throughout.)
1. The Hustler (1961)
What they got right: This is the best sports film ever made because it conveys the athlete's passion for his sport better than any other film. Granted, pocket billiards is technically more a game than sport, but none of that matters in this story of "Fast Eddie" Felson's (Paul Newman) fall from grace and redemption as he realizes that winning just for personal glory has a cost greater than the gain. His wolfish hunger and raw competitiveness is most evident in the bus-station scene and bar scene in which he tries to pick up the emotionally damaged Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). That he knows she's an alcoholic and uses that to have sex with her shows that he's willing to do anything to win. The winning-at-all-costs ethic is embodied in the shady character of gambler Bert (George C. Scott), who wins in order to crush others because he's emotionally dead inside. Never in any other sports film have the stakes been so high or the outcome so satisfying. Fast Eddie's redemption doesn't come by winning in the end; it comes by his willingness to sacrifice himself for what's right — which he learned from Sarah.
What they got wrong: Nothing.
2. Hoosiers (1986)
What they got right: This film is rightfully beloved by many because it's not about basketball as much as it is about, like The Hustler, personal redemption. Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) only gets the job of coaching in the small Indiana town of Hickory because he's friends with the principal. Since he lost his last coaching job for hitting a student, this is pretty much his last chance. But it's not just about his redemption. It's also about the redemption of Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the alcoholic parent of one of the high-school players. Wait, there's more: It's also about the socialization of the town's best player, Jimmy Chitwood, giving him something worth playing for rather than just self-aggrandizement. The basketball scenes are spunky and entertaining, but they are just a light meant to illuminate the characters.
What they got wrong: The film is "loosely based" on real events. As much as I find last-second baskets to win the championship cheesy, that actually happened, so I can't complain in this case. What they did get wrong was trying to rewrite racial history by showing integrated teams and stands in the early 1950s when that wasn't the case. They could have presented a realistic portrayal of the racial tensions, thereby showing that basketball was a means of social salvation for African-Americans at the same time it was a means of redemption for the white characters.
3. Vision Quest (1985)
What they got right: The speech I quoted above pretty much tells you what they got right: the social significance of sports. The film actually questions some of the clichés of sports films. For example, in an early scene, the wrestling coach gives a speech about how anyone who wants to wrestle in a weight class has to beat the current ranking wrestler in that class and how fair that system is. When Louden, who is the top wrestler in his weight class, announces that he's dropped weight and will continue to do so in order to wrestle the state's unbeaten champ, the coach pulls him aside to talk him out of it. When the "fair" system goes against what those in charge want, people get upset. This is echoed when Louden, who wants to become a medical student, writes an article for the school newspaper on the clitoris and the newspaper is shut down. Freedom of speech unless you say something we don't like.
Another idea the film takes on is the familiar one about teamwork. When Louden's teammates discover he's going to take on Shute, they are angry at him because his personal mission doesn't help the team win. To which he replies, "In case you haven't noticed, westling's not a team sport." But he does go on to inspire his teammates with his single-minded pursuit of doing the impossible.
What they got wrong: This coming-of-age story gets most of it right — until the ending. The novel that the movie is based on got it right by ending the story just as Louden is about to wrestle Shute. He thinks, "I'm calm as I enter the circle. Behind me trails a brief tradition. It's made up, but it's mine. Win or lose, the river flows again." He has won by facing Shute. It doesn't matter what happens in the actual match. In fact, that's also what the film is telling us all along. But Hollywood doesn't trust audiences and thinks that we need to see him beat Shute, so they show him winning and being carried out by the team, which kind of spits in the face of the rest of the film.
4. Bull Durham (1988)
What they got right: This movie is revolutionary in many ways: It's a baseball story narrated by a woman, Annie (Susan Sarandon); it's not about the glories of winning but about passion for the game; the main character, "Crash" Davis (Kevin Costner), doesn't triumph over adversity, but matures into understanding that baseball has a role in his life, but isn't his entire life. The film incorporates quotes from William Blake and Walt Whitman to reveal the poetic attributes of sport. Though the structure is familiar, the individual scenes are surprising and refreshing. The love of baseball is evident throughout.
What they got wrong: Nothing. Director-writer Ron Shelton (White Men Can't Jump, Tin Cup) is the best sports filmmaker around. He recognizes both its personal fascination and its social influence.
5. Breaking Away (1979)
What they got right: Like Vision Quest, this is a coming-of-age story about four buddies from Bloomington, Indiana, who have given up on the American Dream. The opening scene introducing the four friends is one of the best in sports films, revealing their cynical, disillusioned, or falsely romantic take on the world. These "townies" are marginalized by the university in their town, and seem destined to watch other people's children come in, get educated, and go on to be successful, while they can only watch. A bicycle race at the end gives them another shot, and shows their problems are caused by their own attitude more than outside reality.
What they got wrong: The film has some basis in fact in that the character of Dave Stoller is based on a real guy who did ride 139 of the 200 laps of the Little 500 and crossed the finish line as the winner. Having the four pals win the race against the spoiled university students is meant to be a boost of self-esteem telling them that they are capable of achieving anything. However, it rings a bit hollow and contrived, a feel-good ending to make us forget the reasons they were so beaten down in the first place: bad economy, no job opportunities, parents barely scraping by.
The Honorable Mentions
There are many more sports films that are terrific. Here are 10 more, in no particular order:
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973): One of the most touching sports films ever. The story of a dying catcher played by Robert De Niro and the profound effect he has on the team.
The Boys in Company C (1978): Haven't heard of this one? Plus, it's set in Vietnam during the war? No, I haven't gone nuts. This story of American soldiers in Vietnam in 1968 uses soccer to reveal the battle between honor and corruption.
A League of Their Own (1992): There is crying in every sport, whether anyone admits it. In this tale of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943, the disparity of women's roles in American society is just as poignant today as it was when this was made.
Downhill Racer (1969): Robert Redford stars at an arrogant, self-centered skier whose desire for personal success leads him on a downhill course in which sports victory equals personal loss.
Personal Best (1982): Mariel Hemingway plays a track-and-field athlete striving to join the Olympic team. Her conflicts with coaches, lovers, and teammates provide a realistic portrayal of the sport.
White Men Can't Jump (1992): It's about basketball, but it's not about basketball. It's about how basketball is a kind of language in male relationships, and how that can get in the way of more mature relationships.
Tin Cup (1996): This film gets to the heart of an important aspect of sports: the personal challenge of doing what's never been done, even if it's not the smart play. Again, it's about the passion for the sport and how that reflects the athlete's passion for life.
Rocky (1976): Most people don't remember that Rocky doesn't win the Big Fight against Apollo Creed. The fact that he doesn't win is proof of filmmakers' convictions.
Champion (1949): Kirk Douglas as a fighter who starts out a decent guy but is destroyed by his own ambition captures the demons pros are still fighting today.
The Great White Hope (1970): On one level, this fictionalized account of early-20th-century boxing champion Jack Johnson explores racism of the time. On another level, it reveals what a sports icon is to people — what they want, what they will accept, and what they won't.