Playlist: 3 Sports Movies

November 10, 2013 § Leave a comment


What about a game in which the preservation of the body is secondary to the sharpness of the mind? For the diminished risk of its central game, Robert Rossen’s classic pool-shark drama never keeps physical consequences off the table, from a scene in which Paul Newman’s Eddie get his thumbs broken to the humiliation and exploitation of Piper Laurie’s Sarah. The “winning isn’t everything” trope recurs time and again in sports movies, as well as the probing study of the drive to win at all costs that animates much of The Hustler’s epic narrative. The rise and fall and hollow rise of Fast Eddie, the downfall of Minnesota Fats, and the supporting characters peeking at the edges of the narrative, the depiction of a seedy underbelly beneath a superfically harmless pasttime: this is the stuff of high drama, and it contributes to The Hustler’s status as one of the greatest classics of American movies. It is really only subversive as a sports film: by the end of the story, we’ve all come to loathe the game itself.

On DVD and Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox and available for streaming purchase on Amazon.

2. ‘O’

Perhaps barely a sports movie, Tim Blake Nelson’s high school adaptation of Othello seems to me inextricably tied to the politics and dynamics of competition at a certain age. Divorced from a true warrior culture, adolescents battling each other for respect and women is one of the few contexts in which the high melodrama of Shakespeare’s tragedy could really make sense. Josh Hartnett was never better than in the role of Iago/Hugo, but he has a world-class sparring partner in Mekhi Phifer’s Odin, the two of them circling each other and pounding their chests even as only the seeds of Hugo’s convoluted plot are apparent. Like The Hustler, O uses high drama as the vessel for a hard look at the destructive potential of competition, one in which the sport is less a metaphor for a one-on-one battle of wills than it is a one-way force of destruction. Hugo’s hateful glares at Odin across the basketball court vanish all the other players away: the game makes ‘O’ a star, but it also makes him a target.

On DVD from Lions Gate and streaming on Amazon.


Downhill Racer is something like The Driver of sports movies. It has the sheen of a New Hollywood production, with Robert Redford as the titular brooding prodigy. You can tell from the poster (probably my all-time favorite) that he’s in an existential malaise, with the killer tagline “How fast must a man go to get from where he’s at?” There’s the slogan for a whole movement in American filmmaking. Downhill racing is perfect for this sort of pared-down sports movie: opponents are out of sight for the duration of the heat, and Ritchie’s point-of-view filmmaking puts viewers right on the slopes with Redford, racing against…himself? His father? His teammates? In 1969 Redford was perfect casting for the role of Chappellet, his limited range but singular determination (perhaps to be taken seriously) making him a great asset for a director who knew how to use him. Ritchie keeps Chappelet opaque by disappearing him for great stretches of the racing scenes, as the camera slips behind his eyes. What truly sets Downhill Racer aside for me is its ending, which shows an understanding of the dynamics of sports underlying its loftier ambitions. The final moments seem to be inching toward a lady-or-the-tiger finale, in which Chappelet’s victory seems uncertain, before abruptly shoving past it and celebrating the champion of the Winter Olympics. Film has the capacity to be more ambiguous, but Downhill Racer understands that sports are not like life. In sports there really are winners and losers, and there are always endings.

On DVD from the Criterion Collection. – Brendan


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