On the same day I saw my favorite sports movie in years (Rush), I was flipping channels and realized the greatest basketball movie ever (Hoosiers) was going head-to-head against the greatest football movie ever (The Longest Yard). I have seen these movies so many times that, with no exaggeration, I could stumble upon either and know instantly where we are in each movie. I ended up watching Yard because Paul Crewe had just fake-limped off the field in the climactic game against the guards. I knew every beat and line that was coming. It didn't matter.
I never thought you'd sell us out.
Hey, Pop, the time you hit Hazen in the mouth, was it worth 30 years?
Did you hear about my touchdown?
We've come too far to stop now. For Nate, for Granny ... for Caretaker.
Game … ball.
Stick this in your trophy case.
I can't even remember life without Paul Crewe. The Longest Yard came out in 1974, nearly four full decades ago, going down as our first great "modern" sports movie. The complicated football scenes still hold up. So does Burt Reynolds's charismatic performance as Crewe — to this day, there's never been a more believable movie quarterback. It's just a classic. Dated as hell, but a classic. (Someday, I will forgive Adam Sandler for trying to remake it. Just no time soon.) And it spawned a formula that worked for the next 30 years, in all shapes and forms, before finally burning itself out last decade. How many times could we watch a ragtag collection of underdogs, a flawed but likable hero, impossible odds, a climactic game, a big comeback, at least one chill scene, and a slightly implausible but undeniably lovable ending? Good luck unearthing an idea that (a) hasn't been done yet, and (b) isn't totally derivative of another sports movie.
For instance, a movie about crazed Little League parents would work … but the Bad News Bears shadow would linger over it. How would you make it different from Bears? And what if you don't find the right child actors? Twenty minutes into the meeting, you'd talk yourself out of it … or even worse, someone would say, "Screw it, why don't we just buy the rights to Bears and remake it?" And that's how you end up with this steaming turd.
In recent years, Hollywood shied away from relying on old-school sports movies for that reason, but also because they sell only domestically. That turns them off. (Note: I covered that subtle shift in priorities in a 2010 piece about The Fighter, which struggled to find financing despite two A-listers being involved.) If you make a sports flick these days, you have to keep your budget under $25 million to $30 million, you probably can't afford to hire more than one recognizable name, and you have to accept that your best-case scenario is a double off the wall. That's a problem because, in the movie business right now, everyone steps up to the plate swinging like Chris Davis. That's why we see so many superhero movies and lavish 3-D movies. Nobody wants to hit singles and doubles. Home run or bust.
So sports-movie buffs have been treated to a slew of singles and doubles, with the exception of 2008's Sugar, a home run that barely anyone saw. Goon, Win Win and The Damned United never wanted to be anything other than quirky, lovable, well-done independent movies. (Mission accomplished.) Warrior launched the careers of Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy while grabbing that "Best MMA Movie" torch. 42 smacked a triple financially even if it popped out creatively. (That Spike Lee never made Jackie's story remains a shame.) The Fighter and The Wrestler crossed into the mainstream, elicited some genuinely powerful performances and landed a few Oscar nominations (with Melissa Leo even winning). And Moneyball did a masterful job of promoting itself, building a quality cast around Brad Pitt and letting him do Brad Pitt things … even as it bastardized the facts.
You know what every one of those movies had in common? You didn't have to see them in the theater. You could wait for their first pay-per-view/iTunes/Netflix/Blu-ray/HBO appearance, a phenomenon that took hold in the late-2000s and remains a bigger threat to sports movies than anything else. If people don't need to leave their houses to see sports movies, and you're not making money with them overseas, then why make them at all?
Also not helping: The golden age of documentaries, which assumed all shapes and sizes, lured scores of talented filmmakers, yielded the incomparable Senna (one of the greatest sports documentaries ever) and became something of a sports-movie placebo. People rewatch these things multiple times. It's amazing. We (ESPN) never expected to launch a second round of 30 for 30, but at some point it became foolish NOT to do it. We loved making them. They rated every time we reran one. People asked us constantly, When are they coming back? So why not? Between 30 for 30, Nine for IX, SEC Storied and other ESPN Films projects we've aired, the ESPN family of channels will produce more than 100 sports documentaries in a six-year span from 2009 to 2014.
And it's not just us. HBO still churns out quality docs (most recently Glickman) and broke ground with Hard Knocks and its superb 24/7 series. (Do we really need to create an all-about-the-excess, polarizing, complicated, unbeatable fictional boxer when we already have Floyd Mayweather?) The NFL Network and NFL Films keep cranking out consistently good work: I love America's Game and A Football Life. NBA Entertainment produced Once Brothers and The Announcement for ESPN and made enjoyable films about the Dream Team and Julius Erving for NBA TV. Showtime copied 24/7 with All Access (I enjoyed the Floyd/Canelo episodes) and recently premiered an insightful film about Lawrence Taylor's life. And I'm sure NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports Zero Point One will be throwing their hats in the ring soon. Same for out-of-the-box brands like Netflix and Microsoft.
In 2013, everyone wants sports content. And everyone has come to the same realization: It's easier and safer to make documentaries and reality shows than scripted sports movies. At ESPN Films, we spitball possible 30 for 30 topics all the time, wondering if they'd make for better shorts, one-hours or something bigger. I can't remember the last time we said, "That story makes more sense as a fictional sports movie." In the old days, Disney would have bought the rights to the Jim Valvano/Wolfpack story and turned it into a forgettable "based on a true story" movie starring Keanu Reeves as Jimmy V. In 2013, it's smarter to give that concept to an accomplished filmmaker like Jon Hock and make the real Jimmy V its star. If you were running ESPN, wouldn't you devote your film resources to dozens of documentaries every year over funding ONE sports movie that — best-case scenario — might become a double off the wall?1
Which brings us to Rush. When I first heard about Ron Howard's new movie, I thought Rush sounded like one of those vanity projects that famous directors make when they've succeeded for too long without anyone ever telling them no. He wasn't a big Formula One fan but became obsessed with the story? He hired the dude from The Queen to write it? He struggled to get the thing funded? Oh boy … get the Razzies Committee ready. Besides, Hollywood already tackled the Formula One thing with the brilliant Senna. How are we topping that one? By making a "based on a true story" movie about two anonymous-in-America dudes from the 1970s, one of whom is being played by a freaking Hemsworth brother? Come on.
Even after someone I trusted told me, "It's Howard's best movie. You, more than anyone, will love it — you have to see it," I shrugged them off. When a second trustworthy person told me the same thing? Hmmmmmm. I rolled the dice and gambled a date night on it, taking my wife to dinner and then Rush on Saturday night. We knew little about the plot. Please know that I won't spoil the movie for you. I want you see it. But it's terrific from the first minute — when we see the two rivals (Niki Lauda and James Hunt) staring each other down before a Formula One race in 1976, a bitter rivalry that's slowly morphing into something else.
Are they going to try to murder each other? How far does their mutual hatred go? What's happening here?
The opener pulls you in and keeps you there, even after Howard goes backward to explain how we arrived at that moment. It's an exceptionally well-crafted film that hinges on two engaging performances. Chris Hemsworth (not the one who dated Miley) plays Hunt, a gregarious, hard-partying, supremely confident playboy who's like a cross between Paul Crewe, Austin Powers and Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder. If the Hemsworths are the Australian Baldwins, then Chris just grabbed the Alec spot — he's definitely a movie star, although it remains to be seen whether he'll screw it up Colin Farrell–style over these next few years. It's a juicy role and he nails it.
Daniel Brühl has a tougher challenge — he plays Niki Lauda, the not-as-handsome, not-as-magnetic, maniacally driven Austrian who forges his way into Formula One by using his brains and ingenuity.2 Hunt drives more intrepidly, but Lauda happens to be a genius with cars; he can shave seconds off his times not just by driving them, but by telling you exactly how to build their engines. But he doesn't look like a famous driver, to the degree that one future girlfriend refuses to believe it's his career until he starts driving their car like a maniac. Lauda envies Hunt's charisma and resents his fearlessness, his utter refusal to accept the inherent risks in every race. In Lauda's mind, every race brings an accompanying 20 percent risk of an accident, or maybe even death, and every driver must assess that risk and decide whether it's worth it. Hunt doesn't think that way — he knows his trademark audacity is the trait that makes him special, even if he pukes before every race to will himself to that point.
In the movie, they're destined to despise each other. In real life? They were rivals but legitimate friends, even supposedly sharing a one-bedroom flat in London in 1974 (or so Wikipedia tells us).3 For that reason and a few others (all related to accuracy), Rush has been criticized by the movie police for lacking authenticity and hiding too conveniently behind the "based on a true story" tag. And believe me, I get it — that's why I didn't like Moneyball as much as others, because it could have been accurate and took the lazy way out for reasons that remain unclear. Few people ultimately cared because Moneyball was a Brad Pitt movie disguised as something else. He gets to be a movie star for two hours — surrounded by other movie stars, no less. Sometimes, that's all we want. Throw in a clever marketing plan and Moneyball became one of the most successful sports movies of the last few years.
Still, Moneyball would have been an even better documentary. You didn't need to fictionalize that story — you could have told it in the smartest, most creative way possible.4 The Hunt-Lauda story lacked that luxury: Maybe their roller coaster race for the 1976 Formula One title (the heart of the movie) could become a decent documentary centered on Lauda's famous crash, but it wouldn't approach Senna or anything. Dramatizing their story and turning it into a rivalry movie — now THAT was an inspired move. Your main characters bonded by mutual animosity, surrounded by death every week, fighting the same fears and demons, unable to accept losing to the other, getting into each other's heads by insulting each other's marriages and making fortune cookie–like proclamations such as, "A wise man can learn more from his enemies than a fool will from his friends"? What else would you want from a sports movie?
And unlike with any sports film in recent memory, you have to see Rush in the theater, for all the reasons you'd think: You want to see those gorgeous cars zooming around on that 50-foot screen, you want to get lost in those winding race tracks, and you want to be surrounded by the sound of engines revving and tires squealing. You'll be surprised by how many times you flip sides — one minute you're rooting for Hunt, then suddenly you find yourself rooting for Lauda. The signature crash is agonizing; Lauda's painful recovery is something else. The film never stops moving. You won't want to go to the bathroom because you won't want to miss anything. It's undeniably the greatest fictional racing movie ever — are there even any other candidates? — although I'm not prepared to answer the "Rush vs. Senna" question yet. That baby needs about 10 more years to breathe.
Just know that no sports movie tapped into the concept of a two-man rivalry better than this one; usually, they go overboard and end up with Clubber Lang inadvertently murdering Mickey (and let's face it, he DID murder Mickey). Rush lets that Lauda-Hunt relationship simmer as a feud, fester as a rivalry, then eventually balloon into something else. But that's not my favorite thing about the film. There's a scene after Lauda finally gets married, when he's relaxing on his honeymoon with his wife — for once. They swim, they get sun, they make love, and finally they fall asleep. Only Lauda can't sleep. His new bride finds him staring at the ocean from their rented suite, watching the waves and worrying about his life. She knows something's wrong, she just doesn't know what. So she asks him.
"Happiness is the enemy," Lauda tells her. "It weakens you. Suddenly you have something to lose."
It's a remarkable moment. And it's so goddamned true. One of the worst things that can happen to successful people is just that: becoming successful. You lose your edge, you forget why you got there, and suddenly, you're done. Lauda knew that, as a driver living with that 20 percent risk every day, getting comfortable was the single worst thing that could happen. This isn't a new theme for a sports movie — shit, Rocky III went so far as to use "Eye of the Tiger" as its opening song. But it has never been banged home as poignantly as this.
Last thought: I couldn't help but think of Ron Howard during that scene. He's probably the most successful child actor ever; it's either him or Justin Timberlake. He's made plenty of movies and plenty of money. He even won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. I'm sure he had plenty of "Happiness is the enemy" moments, maybe even looked around and noticed all the other washed-up directing talents who were weakened by their own triumphs. He's at the point in his career — 31 years since he made the wildly underrated Night Shift, gave his buddy Henry Winkler's career a second life, turned Michael Keaton and Shelley Long into stars and started shedding his own Opie Taylor/Richie Cunningham baggage — when there's simply no way, at age 59, that he should have directed his best movie ever. But that's what happened here. I loved Rush if only because it reminded me of how much I love sports movies. You should see it.
Speaking of car crashes, it's time for my Week 4 picks.