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'McFarland, USA' and the neutering of the Hollywood sports movie

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Ron Phillips

The most wonderful thing about sports, the reason we watch religiously, is that anything can happen. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Nobody knows that Seattle is going to pass at the goal line in the Super Bowl’s waning seconds. Nobody knows that Bill Buckner is going to let a slow grounder trickle through his legs with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning. Nobody knows that Secretariat is going to win the Belmont by 31 lengths. 

Disney loves sports, too. After all, they own ESPN. But for the last 15 years, they’ve built a sports-movie empire that seems determined to wring all the spontaneous magic—that thing that we love about sports in the first place—out of its cookie-cutter films. A modern Disney sports movie is a genre in itself as schmaltzy and formulaic as a rom-com, as predictable as porn. 

The latest example is McFarland USA, which stars sports-movie legend Kevin Costner as Jim White, the real-life coach who turned the neglected children of poor Mexican immigrants into California’s greatest high-school cross-country running dynasty. The film is produced by Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi, the creative team responsible for inspirational, feel-good, true stories like The Rookie, Miracle, Invincible, Secretariat, and Million Dollar Arm. If you know their previous films, then you know exactly what to expect with McFarland (which has garnered mostly critical praise). There will be an underdog, there will be adversity, there will be redemption, and ultimately, there will be triumph. You might be roused, but at no point will you be surprised. And if the filmmakers have to change some of the facts of their fact-based tale to fit the neat narrative, well, so be it. In the film, Coster’s character is not unlike Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, popping up in McFarland after he’s fired from his previous coaching job for assaulting a player and quickly turning McFarland’s runners into champions. In real life, White was a dedicated and compassionate McFarland educator for 17 years before he ever coached at the high school, and it took him another seven years of cultivating running talent as the XC coach before they won their first state title. (Read Gary Smith’s great Sports Illustrated article here.)

But this isn’t about bending a few facts to tell a good story, a sports-movie tradition as old as Knute Rockne, All American and Pride of the Yankees. This is about the slow suffocation of the Hollywood sports movie. A versatile and dynamic genre that can serve as a vehicle for all types of American stories, from romance to politics to social change, has been increasingly neutered by the preponderance of movies that are satisfied to shoe-horn every sports story into the classic Hoosiers template that reassures and reinforces values we can all believe in. That’s not to say that all of them are crummy. (Who doesn’t love Miracle?) It’s just to say that they lack imagination and resemble each other in all the same flawed ways. 

It would be unfair to lay the blame entirely at Disney’s feet. After all, Cinderella sports stories were already box-office gold with Rocky and The Bad News Bears. But sports movies also used to be a much richer genre. North Dallas Forty is a football movie that seems frighteningly more prescient every year, Raging Bull might be one of the greatest and most disturbing character studies ever put on film, and Bull Durham is poetic and unflinching in its treatment of the vagaries of love and baseball. Even the original Friday Night Lights, which culminates in a crushing defeat and the ritualistic disposal of another class of teenage football chattel, shined a light on the grotesque glorification of high-school sports—a notion that was conveniently overlooked in the beloved TV series where most every Big Game resulted in victory.

Disney isn’t the only guilty party. Their success has inspired imitators—so much so that even a well-crafted movie like Warner Bros.’ 42, a film that bravely refused to sanitize the racial epithets that Jackie Robinson endured, tinkered with the facts to fit the conventional sports-movie narrative that culminates in the Big Game catharsis that studios think audiences require. 

The great irony is that while Disney has contributed mightily to the watering-down of the theatrical sports movie, it has simultaneously helped usher in the golden age of the sports documentary. In 2009, ESPN began airing its series of 30 for 30 sports docs to honor the network’s 30th anniversary, and some of the films—passion projects directed by accomplished storytellers like Barry Levinson and Steve James—have been compelling, tragic, and inspirational without resorting to cliché and square-peg storytelling. Alex Gibney’s stirring doc about infamous Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman or Jonathan Hock’s recent doc about the 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team that lost the Miracle on Ice game (a team also chronicled in the recent festival-film doc, Red Army) are reminders that there’s no need to dumb-down sports stories, and that the best version of the story is often the truest. HBO has its own tradition of award-winning sports docs, reliably narrated by actor Liev Schreiber, making the marketplace as vibrant and diverse as ever. 

In 2015, the polarization between high-quality sports docs and hackneyed theatrical sports movies is curiously fascinating. Once upon a time, sportwriters glorified and embellished the achievements of athletes and looked the other way at their indiscretions and bad behavior. But the current state of affairs in sports is much harsher and more jaded, what with daily reports of performance-enhancement drugs, off-the-field shenanigans both embarrassing and offensive, and public awareness that competing in the most violent sports might literally be killing our heroes. All this material is ripe for sports documentaries. But the drip-drip of less-than-heroic news might also instill an appetite for a simply, more idealistic time—even if it never existed. Hence the Disney-fied sports movies that take an ounce of fact and mix it with a ton of old-fashioned storytelling for a mawkish result that would make Grantland Rice blanch. 

There’s hope, of course. There’s The Fighter. And Moneyball. And even Warrior, which was directed by Miracle‘s Gavin O’Connor. All three films managed to create something special and unique while still operating within the constrictive boundaries of a conventional sports movie—something that Ron Shelton long ago mastered. He directed, among others, Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, and Tin Cup—three movies that treated failure as an inevitable and essential part of the game and appealed to the hardcore demographic that liked those sports in the first place. For sports movies to become interesting again, they need to follow his template instead of Disney’s, and win back the fans who might spend 90 minutes watching a sports documentary. Otherwise, I’m done rooting for Cinderella.

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