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Original Issue

Rudy Can't Fail

A screenwriter implores Hollywood not to give up on sports movies, which, like many of their protagonists, are true underdogs

Let me tell you about the first time I watched Rudy. It was at 30,000 feet. This was before personal viewing systems on airplanes, so it was the only movie playing on the flight. I hadn't bothered to see it in the theater because I was convinced I was immune to getting hooked by another sports movie. After all, I knew the general outline of the story; it's the same in almost every sports movie ever made. The main character is told he either a) will never make it or b) is past his prime, having blown the one chance he'll ever get. Only there's something about him: This guy, you see, he has no quit in him. So despite the odds and the mounting pressure from a) his family, b) his girlfriend and c) the world, which regards him as crazy, he straps in and begins to fight, hoop it up or dig into that batter's box with a look in his eyes that says, You just try me!

It would be impossible, after a lifetime spent watching that familiar journey, for Rudy to somehow get under my skin. Right? I was going to find out. So I sat back, arms folded in front of me, headphones at top volume, skepticism on full blast.

Right as the movie started, I glanced to my left to see a fellow passenger also turning his attention to the screen. He was a big, serious-looking businessman in a striped Oxford shirt, tie undone. His broad shoulders, sturdy bearing and mustache out of the Craig Stadler guide to grooming made me imagine that he came from a family of cops and firemen, that he was the kind of guy who might not have a quick temper but when he got mad, look out. In other words, not the kind of guy who was going to cry at the movies.

But, it turns out, no one is immune to the jersey scene.

When Rudy's teammates began laying their jerseys on the coach's desk, each asking that Rudy be allowed to dress in his place, I felt it happening to me. I tried to fight it because I couldn't just break down in front of this tough guy to my left. I turned to look at him. He had his head leaned back, eyes to the sky, trying hard not to blink or even move. Then the dam broke, and tears began streaming down his face.

At which point I totally lost it too.

Once we gathered ourselves, long after Rudy was carried off the field in victory, my fellow passenger and I nodded to each other. That's it, a nod. But the nod said it all.

Rudy got to us because sports movies, the great ones anyway, have a purity and truth that all too often professional and college sports no longer do. Because up on the screen the characters just want to win, compete, give it one last try. To the characters in a sports movie the money doesn't matter.

Unfortunately, in the movie business money does matter. And the men and women running the corporations that run the studios making the movies have decided that there's not enough money in sports movies to keep making them on a regular basis. This is mostly because the business model on which films are green-lighted depends a great deal on foreign numbers—that is, projections of what kind of box office they will generate overseas. And the conventional wisdom is that sports movies don't play internationally. For every Blind Side there are five Invincibles. Which is why there were so few sports movies made and released by major studios this year.

Even The Fighter and Moneyball, two recent sports movies that earned Academy Award nominations and performed solidly at the box office in the U.S., failed to ignite internationally. And the execs in the business consider those movies outliers anyway; they would be more likely to point to two other excellent sports pictures, Win Win and Warrior—which were mostly ignored by the mainstream and failed to perform at either the domestic or international box office, despite their quality—as more typical of the financial perils of sports-themed films.

Rudy made me remember our best qualities: courage, bravery, steadfastness, empathy, sacrifice, the pure love of a noble idea, the joy of pushing yourself beyond your capacity to accomplish the impossible. I was also reminded of sports teams I had made, been cut from, sat on the bench for and, somehow, contributed to. And of times I had found my own impossible goals and set out to chase them despite knowing the odds against success. Rudy hammered these things home the same way Rocky had 17 years before it and Remember the Titans would seven years later. And I was grateful I decided to give the film a chance.

Having been in the movie business since 1997, when David Levien and I wrote Rounders (a sports movie of a sort), I understand its realities. I know that it's easier to market and sell comic book characters and sequels. And that sports movies are hard for the studios to justify financially. But I also know that when they are done right, sports movies are magical and important. And so in the same way I rooted for the coach to do the right thing and put Rudy on that field, I'm rooting for Hollywood to find a way to do the right thing and give us a few more of the transcendent film moments that only a sports movie can bring.


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