Image Credit: Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesIt’s been months since we’ve heard any mention of the Joe Namath biopic that Jake Gyllenhaal was tentatively linked to, but the Los Angeles Times reports that director James Mangold (Walk the Line) might be in the huddle. I adore a well-done sports biopic (Raging Bull, Chariots of Fire) and will even swallow heaps of maudlin melodrama (The Pride of the Yankees, Seabiscuit) if the characters and drama are riveting enough. In recent years, though, the sports biopic has been usurped by the sports documentary, which has the advantage of chronicling an athlete’s exploits without being weighed down by romantic meet-cutes or the obligation to forcefully redeem its flawed heroes. Even a gold-plated project like Michael Mann’s Ali left me hungering for the real-deal, better captured in the Oscar-winning documentary, When We Were Kings.
But a Namath film has the potential to deliver something different, something complex. The New York quarterback was a super-sized character who transcended his sport to become one of the iconic figures of the late-1960s, an age that was enduring seismic social and cultural changes. He was Peyton Manning-meets-Austin Powers — a swinging bachelor who grew his hair long and wore pantyhose on the field. If Mangold, or some other director, is interested in those aspects of the Namath story, rather than simply polishing “print-the-legend” mythology, than perhaps sports biopics still have a place. Otherwise, documentaries will continue to be the only form that tackles sports stories that aren’t paint-by-number underdog tales.