Monday, October 04, 2010
Most sports films follow a similar predictable storyline about an underdog team or player who, despite all odds and realistic expectations, eventually triumphs in the climactic scene. If it's about a team there's usually a curmudgeonly coach who has some personality quirk that either involves a dark history or behaviors bordering on insanity, but in the end he inspires the team to greatness. If it's about a person, he or she has big dreams that seem to have no chance at success, but through perseverance, the player either accomplishes an amazing victory or shows that he or she has the "right stuff" usually with the love of a good woman or man or parent as support. Vegas will offer no odds on the outcomes of these films because there's no question how they will end. The only issue would be did the film engage us and offer that emotional punch at the end (with an appropriately crescendo-filled soundtrack) to make the formula work.
I have lots of favorite sports films that adhere to the formula: Hoosiers, Miracle, We are Marshall, Goal!, and Remember the Titans. I enjoyed The Blindside because it touched me on a personal level. My sons are adopted and African-American, so our family shared some of the experiences highlighted in the film – although I never confronted a drug dealer and threatened him. But for the most part I feel the same way about sports films as I do about romantic comedies – in order to be good they have to step outside of the formula. Not many do that. But I recently saw a film, a soccer film to boot, that took the sports film formula and turned it on its head: The Damned United. In simple terms this film looked at the 44 day career of Brian Clough as head coach of Leeds United in 1974. On that level alone it would be a fascinating film, showing how a professional top level team operates. But the film is bigger than that.
Although about soccer, the movie doesn't rely upon soccer to create its impact and soul. In fact the soccer scenes make up only a small percentage of the film. Instead the screenwriters, Peter Morgan and David Peace, who wrote the original book, chose to focus on characters rather than events. Peter Morgan wrote the screenplays for The Queen, Frost/Nixon, and The Last King of Scotland among others and was nominated for an Academy Award for each of the first two. So he brought his rich writing credentials to this film filling out the principal characters with deep emotional souls. Rather than being about the triumph of a legend or a legendary team, this film is about failure brought on by vanity and bitterness. Clough proves to be a masterful coach as highlighted by some back story, but his motivation for taking the job at Leeds is to settle an old score and to prove himself a better manager than the previous one, Don Revie. By focusing on his personal issues with Revie he cannot develop a rapport with the team who idolized their former coach. He alienates his best friend and puffs himself up to the media.
Rather than depend upon a real time narrative, the film moves back and forth in time, with each shift giving the audience more information and a clearer understanding of how a coach like Clough, once highly respected and successful, could dig himself so deep a hole in so short a time. Here is a story about the very thing sports media loves to create – the consummate sports hero – and then shows his downfall through his own destructive hubris. The message the film delivers is don't ever believe you are bigger than the game, than the fans, than your friends. When my boys saw this film, they declared it was one of their all-time favorite sports films, not because it was about soccer or how soccer teams work, but because it was about maintaining humility despite great success. It took a devastating collapse for Clough to understand that revenge is best earned by one's own honorable behavior and success based on principled action. Eventually Clough goes on to be one of the most successful coaches in EPL history, earning him the epitaph "The best manager that the English National side never had." The movie delivers the powerful message that we all need to maintain our standards no matter what we think circumstances or opportunities demand. When we abandon our humility and morals, than any success is hollow.
The film is rated R for language and some rough scenes, but I think any player over 13 would benefit from seeing the movie. The overall lessons taught and the deeper understanding of the sport it presents outweigh the ear insults. The movie doesn't shy away from the occasionally baser aspects and ruthless depiction of the sport. It provides the realistic context for all the events which unfold giving them the validity they deserve. In the end, it is a feel good movie but not because the kid who couldn't kick a field goal or make a free throw does so as the clock expires to win the game. It reaffirms the concepts we try hard to teach our kids, that dirty play, insults, racism, and cheating should have no place on the pitch. This film proves that nice guys don't always finish last. That's a movie formula we can all live with.