When you have to keep an obsessive eye on film, music, books, visual art, television, the Internet, and all other manner of popular culture, something eventually has to give, and for us — well, for this author, anyway — it’s sports. An almost-complete disinterest in professional and collegiate sporting events can make one feel a bit of an outcast (and it certainly makes for a confusing Facebook feed; apparently some guy who’s really into Jesus won something important on Sunday?), but after faking it through high school and college, I can’t pretend to care anymore. Maybe it makes me a pencil-necked geek, but the idea of spending three hours watching a football going to and fro — particularly when there are still Hitchcock movies I haven’t seen — is simply unacceptable.
However, many of the same film fans who are patently disinterested in a Sunday afternoon of TV sports will gladly spend that same time planted in front of a sports-themed movie — basically the same thing, albeit with better camera angles and a scripted ending. (And the angles are the only difference in a wrestling movie, HA HA!) And that’s fine with this viewer; as I told a friend after its release, “I’d watch football every week if it looked like Any Given Sunday.” But cinephiles more sport-phobic than I (and they’re out there!) might prefer films that keep the game play squarely off-screen. In honor of today’s DVD release of Moneyball, one of the best of the bunch, we offer ten genuinely good movies about sports that are notable for their minimal sports action. Check them out after the jump, and add your own in the comments.
It would seem appropriate that Bennett Miller’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ best-selling book would have so little baseball action in it, since it tells the true story of a general manager who embraced a system which saw the men on his team as numbers and statistics rather than “players.” We didn’t run a clock on it, but there’s probably less than ten minutes of actual game play in the 133-minute film; even GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) doesn’t watch the games, opting instead to drive and listen to them on the radio, if that. Moneyball is a sports movie about the business of sports, rather than the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat — the film doesn’t lead up to a onscreen “big game,” with dramatic music and a come-from-behind victory, because the last game of this season is only seen as an affirmation of whether Beane’s big scheme worked. Instead of pop-flies and stolen bases, the thrills in Moneyball are found in the whip-smart fast pace of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay.
Like Moneyball, this 1998 drama from New York Knicks ringsider Spike Lee is less about the game than the business, telling the story of the most promising high school basketball player in America, Jesus Shuttleworth (played by real-life baller Ray Allen). Jesus is the object of desire for recruiters from just about every college in the country — and one of them is the governor’s alma mater, so the young man’s estranged father, Jake (Denzel Washington) is sprung from the joint on a one-week pass in order to sway the kid in the gov’s direction. Though few filmmakers have a more pronounced love for the basketball court, Lee is more interested in the dirty business of college recruitment — and, most effectively, in the delicacy of the father/son dynamic.
There is a big game at the end of Phil Alden Robinson’s adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe, but it’s not a Little League championship or a World Series Game Seven; it’s a simple game of catch between a guy and his dad, but that’s a moment that’s put more lumps in grown men’s throats than any movie this side of Brian’s Song. There is a bit of game play in Field of Dreams, but it’s mostly background action and cutaways; Field of Dreams is more about the idea of baseball, and what it represents, than the logistics of strategy or fielding. And the idea of baseball has never had a more eloquent spokesman than James Earl Jones, who (in a speech so beautifully delivered that I get goosebumps just reading it and remembering his delivery) tells protagonist Kevin Costner, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
The brutal black-and-white boxing sequences in Raging Bull are deservedly legendary — striking, powerful, and haunting. But even though director Martin Scorsese spent weeks of his tight shooting schedule executing them, they only make up ten or so minutes of the finished film. For the rest of the picture’s two-plus hours, Raging Bull is a harrowing character study, the true story of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta who had, it could charitably said, some problems. The stylish bouts tend to get trotted out for Scorsese’s clip reels, but the pressure-cooker scenes of domestic unrest and familial dysfunction are what sear Raging Bull into the memory.
When Warren Beatty updated Harry Segall’s play Here Comes Mr. Jordan as a romantic comedy vehicle, he changed his leading character of Joe Pendelton from a boxer (in both the stage version and the original 1941 film adaptation) to a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. He needn’t have bothered; though the story comes to a head with a climactic Super Bowl game, Beatty, co-director Buck Henry, and co-screenwriters Henry, Robert Towne, and Elaine May are far less interested in the gridiron than they are in the comic sidebars of recently-departed Joe taking over the body of millionaire Leo Farnsworth, and in Joe’s romance with environmental activist Betty Logan (Julie Christie).
ESPN’s 30 for 30 series didn’t just give us some of the best sports documentaries in recent memory — they’re responsible for some of the finest non-fiction films we’ve seen over the past few years. Plucking out the best is a tough task indeed, but we’d have to choose June 17, 1994, a truly remarkable act of montage from The Kid Stays in the Picture director Brett Morgen. It centers on one day, during which several very different sports stories collided: the final US Open competition of Arnold Palmer, the opening ceremonies for the World Cup, the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup ticker-tape parade, and game five of the NBA finals. Oh, and OJ Simpson took the LAPD on a weird low-speed highway chase in a white Bronco, with a gun to his head and his friend AC Cowlings at the wheel. Morgen dispenses with all of the documentary trappings: there’s no talking heads, no narration, no real context. His film is composed entirely of clips, news footage from on and off the air, edited in a flurry with a tense, urgent score; in doing so, he casts the events of the day into a present tense, a real time that captures the confusion and shock of that very strange day. But Morgen doesn’t just focus on the OJ circus; by crosscutting to all of those events, he somehow encapsulates the joy, the agony, the thrill, and the emotion of sports.
Another winner from 30 for 30 , this one from Cocaine Cowboys director Billy Corben, who is less interested in the field play of the University of Miami Hurricanes football program than he is in the scandals and controversies surrounding the team. Those familiar with Corben’s work (which also includes the marijuana doc Square Grouper and last year’s profile of New York nightclub mogul Peter Gatien, Limelight) won’t be surprised by his interest in the seedy underbelly of college athletics, but he’s also interested in the flashy surfaces. His film isn’t just set in Miami; it feels like Miami, caked in glitz, neon, and bass-heavy music. But he pushes the story past mere style — the filmmaker constructs The U as a piece of investigative journalism, where he follows leads, asks questions, and kicks over the rocks of the U of M to see what crawls out from underneath.
Originally conceived as part of 30 for 30 (last one, promise), this feature-length documentary by the great Alex Gibney (Oscar-nominated director of Client 9, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and many more) eventually aired this year as part of the “ESPN Films Presents” series of follow-up programs, and was (for this writer’s money, anyway), 2011’s best documentary. Gibney’s ostensible subject is Steve Bartman, the Chicago Cubs fan who became an object of the city’s derision when he reached for a foul ball in game six of the 2003 National League championship and screwed up a potential easy out (at which point, the game and the series went into the toilet). But the real subject is the psychology of fandom: Why do we get so invested in these teams, in these games? Why do they mean so much? And when those teams fail, what determines where we place the blame? Gibney’s thoughtful mediation on those questions is thrilling, eye-opening documentary filmmaking; the fury and dedication of these fans allow us non-sports viewers to roll our eyes condescendingly, before going off to complain on the Internet about the Oscar nominations.
Warner Brothers must have been salivating when Ron Shelton, perhaps Hollywood’s most sports-inspired filmmaker (his directorial credits at that point included Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump; he’d also co-written Blue Chips and The Best of Times), wanted to make a feature film biography of legendary slugger Ty Cobb. So one can only imagine their horror when Shelton delivered his film — set entirely in Cobb’s old age, and depicting him as a mean, nasty, bitter, abusive old racist. Filling that role is Tommy Lee Jones, fresh off his Oscar win for The Fugitive, and as Salon’s Charles Taylor noted, “this towering performance isn’t just his best, it’s one of the greatest and most daring in any American movie.” Cobb’s portrait of the legendary ballplayer isn’t heroic — or even particularly pleasant. But it is utterly unforgettable, a dark and chilling nine-inning take on Raging Bull.
Sure, it stopped being cool to like Cameron Crowe’s Tom Cruise vehicle, oh, six days after Renee Zellweger said “You had me at hello,” but we’re standing by his 1996 romantic comedy/drama; it’s snappy and funny, and we can look past the corn. And it fits our bill here perfectly — it’s the story of a sports agent, but it’s mostly about the business of sports, and the relationships of the title character. In fact, Jerry Maguire has exactly one sports sequence: Late in the film, Jerry’s only remaining client, wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) takes a hard hit in a Monday Night Football game and ends up with a highlight moment that makes him a star. This non-fan must admit, it’s hard not to get all worked up while watching a scene like that. Maybe there’s something to this sports stuff after all.