With The Game just around the corner, Yale football fans everywhere face an all too-familiar problem: the currently 7–1 Harvard Crimson (undefeated in the Ivy League) are making the trek down to New Haven to face a 4–4 Yale squad that’s had just one win against their rival in the last decade. But if popular Hollywood (and last year’s Seattle Seahawks) has taught us anything, it’s that anyone anywhere is capable of pulling out a win on any given day.
Comebacks, upsets, victories, glory — these are the tropes upon which America’s greatest sports films are based and in a way, they underscore the very elements of life that we should hopefully espouse. We want to succeed; we want to overcome; we want to win (unless you play for the Dallas Cowboys defensive secondary). (#1 — Let’s see how many digs I can throw at the Cowboys in one column.) With the right amount of skill, will and determination, we can turn those desires into realities.
That’s the thing about sports movies: if you’ve seen one, you’ve just about seen them all. This doesn’t mean we enjoy underdog stories any less; I’m merely saying that there’s a general predictability hovering over the whole concept. After all, a film chronicling Michael Jordan’s one-man massacre of the NBA during the 1995-’96 season probably wouldn’t produce any feel-good film fodder. And it’s the same thing with the 0–16 Detroit Lions campaign, the 20–134 Cleveland Spiders, or the 9–73 Philadelphia 76ers. Or every Dallas Cowboys season from 1996-present. (#2)
Unproven teams proving their doubters wrong and winning a big game is the ultimate inspirational heartwarmer. Just see: “Hoosiers,” “Major League,” “Miracle” (c’mon, it’s in the damn name!), even “Rudy” (kinda). They all share this thread while each distinctly representing one of the four major American sports: basketball, baseball, hockey and football, respectively. (I’m not including the embarrassment that is MLS.)
But after awhile, you have to inject some new elements to keep sports films compelling.
Racial prejudice usually does the trick.
“Brian’s Song” is a good, and early, film that looks at the color barrier in post-civil rights American sports. “Glory Road” is a more popular and recent take on the issue in the world of college basketball. But “Remember the Titans” is most people’s favorite, if only for Ryan Gosling’s awkward post-”Mickey Mouse Club”/pre-”Notebook” performance and Denzel Washington’s general gravitas.
Another good recipe: follow a couple teams nobody really cares that much about, like in “Chariots of Fire” (track), “Breaking Away” (cycling) or every episode of Michael Irvin’s “4th and Long” (#3). And of course, kids’ movies are always great. “The Sandlot,” “The Bad News Bears” (not the remake) and every other Disney Channel Original Movie are all worth their weight in gold (like “Brink,” which was indirectly responsible for 71 percent of my rollerblading-related accidents as a child).
But (Yale football fans really won’t like this one) the best sports movies seem to be the ones that don’t necessarily end in a tangible victory. “The Replacements” is a tremendously underrated Keanu Reeves movie in which everyone gets fired (which should’ve been the case with Dallas’ head coach last season — oh, wait: #4). “The Longest Yard” (both of them) is set entirely in prison (where a couple of Cowboys cornerbacks have recently wound up: #5). And “Raging Bull” is a terribly depressing film about an extremely talented man’s repeated pitfalls. (Tony Romo in the 2006 playoffs, Tony Romo in the 2007 playoffs and Tony Romo in the 2009 playoffs: #6 — three Dallas digs in the same paragraph? Of course it’s possible.)
The important thing to keep in mind is that sports movies are never supposed to bore us. We watch them usually because we love sports or at least the potential for human drama inherent in them. And when the elements come together in just the right way, we are usually left breathless by sports films more stunning than Tony Romo’s wife (#5 — I’m taking a point away from myself because Romo’s beauty pageant wife is actually gorgeous, unlike Coach Garret’s playcalling: #6). And if you need proof, check out “Rocky.”
So I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that, whether you win or lose, if the drama, the tension and the story are there, you’ve got something amazing on your hands. That’s what makes sports movies great and that’s why we all keep turning out for them, time after time after time. They teach us, above everything else, that there’s always hope.
Unless you’re a Cowboys fan. (#7)