In 1938, an undersized thoroughbred snagged the attention of the entire country with his dominating speed, and in 2001, an unknown author with chronic fatigue syndrome made the bestseller list with her book about this rather ungainly horse. The ugly duckling syndrome plays out as well for one-eyed jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), and the whole package is pumped with inspirational juice by screenwriter/director Gary Ross. The period track milieu of Seabiscuit is authentic and omnipresent, and the story still hums.
It’s nearly impossible to make a sports movie these days that isn’t over-the-top, fists-in-the-air hyper-sentimental and “inspiring,” and most of these recent offerings are deplorable. Miracle may be the best of the lineup, thanks to its period story (the underdog U.S. hockey team besting the Soviet übermensch in the 1980 Winter Games) and Kurt Russell, as the coach, in an outrageous hair-helmet wig.
Terrence Malick’s bleeding-heart romantic vision of the Pocahontas–John Smith saga, The New World is less interested in historical revisionism per se (it does Disney a step better, though) than it is in projecting a rhapsodic feeling for the unspoiled wilderness, frontier intoxication (Colin Farrell, as Smith, is as joyful and quivering as a child at Christmas) and the sun-burnished, beauteous glow of costar Q’Orianka Kilcher, whose Pocahontas should define the character in the popular culture for eons to come. (We’ll forget, as everyone has, that the real Pocahontas was about eleven years old and naked, clothes being permitted among the Powhatan only after puberty.)
A terrific, overlooked revisionist epic of the Age of Exploration’s last days, as the impossibly cool Sir Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and the not-so-impressive John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen) search Africa for the source of the Nile. If you’re of an anticolonialist mind-set, you’ll be happy to see that they get theirs; in addition, the spirit of Victorian clubs, British savoir faire, and National Geographic adventurism of Mountains of the Moon is intoxicating.
Donna Reed doesn’t look much like the Sacajawea we have on our dollar coin nowadays, but The Far Horizons isn’t history; it’s Hollywood doing Lewis and Clark (Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston), whose actual trip would’ve made an eventless movie in the traditional sense, and so dramas are invented involving tribal war, a scurvy French trader (Alan Reed—that’s right, Fred Flintstone), and the love dance between Clark and Reed’s dewy Indian maiden. Shot in Grand Teton National Park.
Maybe this Oliver Stone blitz should be listed under “Election Day” (although that may depend on your political predilections), but it’s also one of our modern era’s most convincing paranoiac screeds. Much of JFK —which revolves primarily around actors like Kevin Costner acting out one of several semi-possible conspiracy scenarios regarding the events that occurred in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963—is questionable, but just as much is not. At least credit Stone for having the cajones to have Costner’s Jim Garrison, unraveling a plot that reaches straight to Lyndon Johnson, spit the word “facism” during his in-court summation. With Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, and Sissy Spacek.
The story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player to be brought up into the Major League show in 1947, has a particularly heroic, folkloric glow, and the impulse to cinematize it into an all-American chest-sweller was so strong that Robinson was egged into starring as himself in 1950’s ill-advised The Jackie Robinson Story. That didn’t work out, but although this Spielbergian version isn’t the film Spike Lee had wanted to make for years, 42 tells a necessary story, and reconstitutes a a slew of baseball legends and gives them props, from Chadwick Boseman‘s long-suffering Jackie to Lucas Black‘s egalitarian Pee Wee Reese to Harrison Ford‘s avuncular character turn as Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. The telegraphed nobility, dumb as it is, can warm your baser nerve endings if you let it, which shouldn’t be hard for a fan.
A true Hollywood scandal fictionalized rather adroitly: in 1924, pioneering producer Thomas Ince died, perhaps after being shot—maybe accidentally, maybe not—aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), in a scenario that also involved Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), actress (and Hearst’s mistress) Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) and Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), who would soon become a lifelong columnist for Hearst Newspapers. The Cat’s Meow was a return to fluency by director Peter Bogdanovich.
The true tale of Jim Morris, a middle-aged high school science teacher who loses a bet with his students, tries out for the majors, and makes it. Though The Rookie was advertised as a kids’ movie, the script never condescends or collapses into silliness, and Morris’s tale is genuinely warming. Americans love the triumph of the underdog against all odds (and what’s more intimidating than growing old?), and The Rookie doesn’t disappoint in this regard: who would believe that a thirty-five-year-old rookie could throw a hundred miles per hour?
There are a few years that mean only one thing to baseball fans; ask a true aficionado what historic event happened in 1941, and instead of talking about Pearl Harbor, he or she will tell you that that’s the year DiMaggio hit in fifty-six consecutive games, a feat that’s never been surpassed or even matched. Likewise, 1961 conjures immediately the home-run race between Yankees legends Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, both chasing Babe Ruth’s record of sixty home runs in a single season. Still, 61*, an HBO movie, directed by Billy Crystal, is no idealized view—Mantle (Thomas Jane) is a tremendous talent, but also a womanizing drunk; the animosity toward Maris (Barry Pepper) is laid bare for us as well. It’s not a great movie, but c’mon, baseball movies aren’t about great cinema, they’re about baseball. Pepper and Jane are both fine in two pairs of big shoes, but who would have thought we’d ever see Anthony Michael Hall, the skinny nerd from Sixteen Candles, as Yankees pitching great Whitey Ford? Baseball fans will love the movie’s real footage of a time when athletes didn’t rely on artificial means to gain glory—just talent, dignity, hard work, and luck.
Could this be the saddest baseball movie ever? Coming from a 1955 novel, this subdued, grown-up drama simply waits out the last season of a low-IQ MLB catcher (Robert De Niro), who learns at the outset that he has a fatal disease. Emphasis is placed less on mortality or the game, and more on the day-to-day traveling life of pro players in the days before bazillion-dollar contracts and steroids. Viewers who were moved when Bang the Drum Slowly came out—and it’s tough not to be when the catcher, in his last game, looks for a fly ball that’s no longer there—keep it close to their hearts.
There may be people who love this weepiest of sports-legend biopics simply because they’re fans of Gary Cooper, or because they’re hardcore Yankee fans who’ll see any movie with the team’s name in the title, but let’s face it: most of us still get a lump in the throat at the sound of Lou Gehrig (or Cooper doing Gehrig), intoning into the ballpark’s vast echo, “Today-ay-ay, I consider myself-elf-elf the luckiest man-man-man on the face of the earth-earth-earth.” Most of us heard Cooper say it before we’d heard Gehrig (if we’ve heard Gehrig at all), and if the Iron Horse is still a universally beloved ballplayer, Pride of the Yankees has fostered that worship. Because it’s baseball, and it’s the movies, it’s not surprising that the legend supplants the original in the public consciousness. Cooper portrays Gehrig as a lovable, innocent bumbler: witness the earnest clumsiness as he wipes out on a pile of bats; the missed ball when wife-to-be Eleanor (the still underappreciated Teresa Wright) bestows a smile upon him; the aw-shucks waves to the roaring crowd. For millions of Americans, in the war years and after, this movie was a collective dream of baseball, in which a poor immigrant’s son can triumph and live a heroic life in the most democratic of sports. The movie leaves Gehrig at his final field appearance, sparing us the trial of his struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Who’d argue that this isn’t as it should be? Does the film depict Gehrig as he really was? Of course not. Baseball fans love the game’s stories, names, stats, and legacies, and this is their Achilles tale, their Greek tragedy. Those same fans know, too, that this film offers opportunities to witness once-living legends Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel, and announcer Bill Stern, playing themselves.
A portrait of Ethiopian runner Haile Gabrsellasie, who won the gold in Atlanta in 1996, that is both documentary and biopic—Gabrsellasie plays himself (just as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali did in their own biodocs), in present-day footage and in flashbacks, among other nonprofessional actors who play his relatives. Powerful but not manipulative—in fact, it’s rather distancing and mysterious. Codirected by nonfiction vet Leslie Woodhead and Olympics documentarian Bud Greenspan.
The second of the late 1990s biopics of James Dean–ish track star Steve Prefontaine, made by impassioned screenwriter Robert Towne and starring Billy Crudup as the golden boy who broke loads of records but failed to win any medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and died tragically in a highway wreck at
age twenty-four. Towne tries to wax philosophical, imagining the debate between coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) and Prefontaine to be a struggle between goal-oriented reason (win) and Ayn Rand–ish individualism (run), but the cloud of preordained doom hangs heavily over the action. What makes Prefontaine a worthy subject is somewhat mysterious; he didn’t place at the Olympics (somehow, the kidnapping of the Israeli track team is supposed to have spoiled his chances), and when all the eulogies are said and done, you can’t be blamed for thinking that all that time and energy would’ve been more fruitfully spent tracking the travails of the Finnish cop who did win.
A TV movie, back in the day when network-produced feature films could actually be ambitious and/or inventive, about track star Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, who won two gold medals at the 1932 games, struggled against the all-male sports world at home to become a champ pro golfer, and succumbed, tragically, to cancer. Susan Clark, peppy but forgotten semi-star of the decade, did her best work in this loving tribute, winning an Emmy for her efforts.
Based on Michael Lewis’s book detailing the life-so-far story of NFL player Michael Oher, who was homeless and struggling until a Tennessee family took him in and helped him join the ranks of the highly-prized college athletes. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar as the tough-talking, don’t-mess-with-my-kids adoptive mom.
A surprisingly spry biopic of actor George Reeves, whose unmeteoric career led to him playing Superman on TV (1952–58), and eventually to a suicide that might’ve been a murder. Ben Affleck, as Reeves, and Diane Lane, as Toni Mannix, a Hollywood producer’s wife and aging tramp, rise to the occasion, and the film is a bath in postwar semi-affluence. Ignore the Adrien Brody framing story if you can.
The film that established college sports—and the sniffly, tear-jerking sports movie—as pillars of American life, this film lionizes the gridiron legacy of Notre Dame, its famous coach Rockne (Pat O’Brien), and the doomed team martyr George “The Gipper” Gipp, played with boyish likability by Ronald Reagan. If you’re a devotee of college ball, quote Rockne’s climactic speech when tipsy (“win just one . . .”), or found Reagan adorable even as president, this is a DVD worth buying. Just don’t bring it to our house.