by Michael Levin
“You can’t script this!” – Hackneyed announcers will say during a particularly meaningful moment in a sporting event. Well, you can, only it’s not typically not very good.
But there are tons of sports movies that are beloved by sports fans despite glaringly bad flaws as films and as representative samples of actual gameplay. Why? People like an underdog. The underdog story has been told again and again and again. You get to the point in filmwatching where you start rooting for the protagonists to lose just so something interesting happens.
That’s why we haven’t seen much in the way of traditional sports movies in the last ten years. “They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore” and that kind of thing. The 80′s and 90′s took care of most of that. What I mean by traditional is as follows:
-> Team bad/scattered.
-> X-Factor brought in.
-> Team assembled/togetherness.
-> Underdogs, etc.
-> Improbable victory.
Hoosiers is like that. Hoosiers isn’t a particularly good movie. It’s also mostly racist. But it’s nostalgic and Indiana and the picket fence and white people so history (especially basketball people) wets itself over it. That’s fine. It’s just not very good.
More specifically, the *basketball* in it isn’t very good.
Making a film is very difficult. Making a film in which supposedly high-level athletes are displaying non-scripted performances of their otherworldly abilities is pretty much impossible. Which is why most game scenes tend to look like the basketball scenes from Fresh Prince.
You couldn’t fake NFL Films — it has to look legitimate, otherwise the sweat, dirt, and Steve Sabol wouldn’t be as impactful. So to combat the visual shortcomings, non-comedic movies do one of two things: Make it stylized (“Moneyball”) or make it not really about sports (“Raging Bull”, “The Damned United”, “Moneyball” again) at all.
And I’ve come across a lot of people who have a problem with that. They’re not sports movies. Sports is certainly used as the backdrop for the setting of which a story could be told, but it’s not about sports. Even “Miracle” isn’t about sports. It’s one of the few exceptions where the actual sportsness looks decent (though I’m not a hockey fan so it could be cornier to the more acute eyeballs out there) but the hockey takes a back seat to the America pride (MURICA) and general teaminess of clashing personalities getting together. The sport is the platform through which a story is told. If it was just about hockey, it wouldn’t be good.
Which is why the movie industry has stopped churning out sports underdog stories. First off, it’s because movies are super hard to get made. Secondly, it’s because studios don’t think audiences will come out to see fictional sports looking cheesy when they can watch it “for free” from home. The good stories have been told (“Rudy”) and re-told (“Invincible”) and told again just in case you were comatose the first two times (“Real Steel”) so there has to be more than just the sports angle.
Without a huge non-sports-related grabber, your mother’s sports films will not get made. “He Got Game”, “The Rookie”, “Love and Basketball” – won’t happen. A few indies will fly through the pipeline but there’s not enough new material that it won’t feel played out. I’d say “Coach Carter”, a basketball film starring Sam Jackson in which NO ONE MISSED A SHOT THE WHOLE MOVIE SERIOUSLY CHECK IT was the death of the pre-modern sports film back in 2005.
It’s fine, because most SPORTS movies are bad. But if you let the sport play out in the background as a motivational factor, goodness can be had. It’s all in the execution. Try not to roll your eyes next time you hear a “you can’t script this stuff!” Try. I dare you.