There is a sportswriting adage that goes, "The smaller the ball,
the better the writing," and the inverse seems to be true of
sports movies. Screenwriters routinely slander golfers (Happy
Gilmore), Ping-Pongers (Forrest Gump) and roulette players
(Casino), while always getting bowlers exactly right (Kingpin,
The Big Lebowski).
So choosing the greatest sports movie of all time should be as
simple as keeping your eye on the ball. Big ball is good (Hoop
Dreams), small ball is bad (Tin Cup), and no-ball-at-all is most
likely a work of genius (Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, Dorf
Alas, there are other, conflicting formulas, and they are
equally valid. If men are running in slow motion on a beach
(Chariots of Fire, Brian's Song), you are almost certainly
watching greatness. (If women are running in slow motion on a
beach, you are almost certainly watching Cinemax.)
Every movie ever made about a team of profane outcasts--Mean
Machine in The Longest Yard, the Chiefs in Slap Shot, Chico's
Bail Bonds in The Bad News Bears--has been, without exception,
Field-goal-kicking donkeys (Gus) are funny. Dogs that can dunk
(Air Bud) are not.
Movies set in Indiana (Hoosiers, Knute Rockne: All-American,
Breaking Away) can be one of two things: great or Rudy. Movies
whose main character is named Indiana are fail-safe, though
other Midwestern states can be less reliable. Jackie Gleason was
unforgettable as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, Brendan Fraser
unwatchable as Yankees phenom Steve Nebraska in The Scout.
Nebraska had a 106 mph fastball--and in sports movies, wild
implausibility should be used only for comic effect. As a
weightlifter representing Klopstokia at the 1932 Olympics, W.C.
Fields wins gold in Million Dollar Legs when his opponent,
straining to jerk 1,000 pounds, falls through the earth.
(Great.) The Natural had us right up until the moment Roy Hobbs
literally knocked the cover off the ball. (Not great.)
Then there are movies in which no one on the set has ever
personally witnessed the sport being filmed. So the climactic at
bat of The Fan, in which Wesley Snipes plays a San Francisco
Giants star, takes place in what appears to be a hurricane,
violating rules of both the National League and the National
It's not that sports fans are unwilling to suspend disbelief.
We'll happily accept that high school basketball player Michael
J. Fox can spontaneously turn into a werewolf (Teen Wolf). But
when that wolf shoots two crucial free throws while a defender
stands directly in front of him--in the middle of the
lane--waving his arms in Fox's face, our disbelief is no longer
suspended, and it falls to the ground like a cartoon character
who has imprudently looked down after running off a cliff.
Better to give us unflinching verisimilitude: Babe Ruth playing
Babe Ruth in The Pride of the Yankees, Jimmy Piersall losing it
in Fear Strikes Out, a writer from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED propping
up a bar in The Slugger's Wife.
The Slugger's Wife, of course, was terrible, but the slugger of
the title was played by Michael O'Keefe, who played Danny Noonan
in Caddyshack, which is the greatest sports movie of all time.
So he's got that going for him, which is nice.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO