With The Game just around the corner, Yale football faces an all-too-familiar problem: We’ve won just once in the last twelve years, and that was in 2006 — when I was a freshman in high school. But if popular Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that, on any given day, anyone anywhere is capable of pulling out a win.
Comebacks, upsets, victories, glory — these are the tropes upon which America’s greatest sports films are based, and in a way, these are the very elements of life that we should hopefully espouse. We want to succeed; we want to overcome; we want to win. 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 about seen them all. This doesn’t mean we enjoy underdog stories any less. I’m just saying there’s a general predictability hovering over the whole concept, though that predictability is probably necessary, to be fair. 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 message. And neither would any movie covering the abysmally bad 0-16 Detroit Lions or the 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers.
The ultimate inspirational heart-warmer comes when an unproven team defies its doubters and wins the big game. Just see “Hoosiers,” “Major League,” “Miracle” (C’mon, it’s in the damn name!), or even “Rudy,” if you don’t believe me. They all follow this trajectory while representing the four major American sports: basketball, baseball, hockey and football, respectively. (I’m not including the embarrassment that is MLS.) But after a while, you have to inject some new elements to continue making compelling sports films.
Racial prejudice usually does the trick.
“Brian’s Song” is a good, and early, film that looks at the color divide 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 is to depict a sport that nobody really follows, as in “Chariots of Fire” (track) or “Breaking Away” (cycling), even if the general effect is the same. 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 just as good, maybe more so because the presence of little children makes the message all the more endearing. (“Brink” was directly responsible for most of my Rollerblading-related accidents as a child.)
But the best sports movies seem to be the ones that don’t necessarily end in a victory on the scoreboard. “The Replacements” is a tremendously underrated Keanu Reeves movie in which everyone gets fired at the end. “The Longest Yard” is set entirely in prison. “Raging Bull” is a terribly depressing film about the repeated pitfalls of an extremely talented boxer. These are definitely not feel-good movies, but they are still very good.
Sports movies are never supposed to bore us. We usually watch them because we love sports, or at least the potential for human drama that comes out through them. And when the elements come together in just the right way, whether or not our protagonists walk away with the W, we are sometimes left breathless. If you need proof, check out “Rocky.”
The drama, the tension and the story need to be there, and if they are, 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. They teach us, above everything else, that there’s always hope.
Even for Yale football.