The Best Sports Movies

Sports movies are supposed to motivate us. Most of them are about the underdog beating the No. 1 selection. They aim to tell us that we can achieve anything if we work hard enough. And they get a little redundant with their inspiration.  Most of my favorite sports movies are not inspirational (with the exception of Invictus), because the truth is the best sports movies are the ones that get at all the ugly realities of  “this sporting life”…

Invictus (2009)

Invictus is not actually about rugby. There is actually very little rugby on screen — and what is on screen isn’t stupendous (the 1995 World Cup final was not the most exciting game in World Cup history). Invictus is about Nelson Mandela and his attempts to unite a country. It just so happens that rugby, a sport that represented the prejudices that crippled South Africa, was at the heart of his campaign for unity.  Appropriately, Invictus is not a movie about a sport’s team’s triumph. It is a movie about a nation’s triumph. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon deliver Oscar-worthy performances as Mandela and South African Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, respectively. Director Clint Eastwood has done a stupendous job of presenting the racial conflicts and the challenges Mandela faced when he came to power without making them theatrical — the history of apartheid and a nation in its wake is too important for theatrical story-telling; it has to feel real.  Ultimately, Invictus testifies to the power of international sport to galvanize a country behind a common goal. If you can get 42 million people to cheer for one rugby team, when more than half of  those 42 million used to cheer against it, what can’t you motivate 42 million people to achieve?

This Sporting Life (1963)

Richard Harris, yes, Dumbledore Richard Harris, was a stud. This is not a movie well-known to American audiences, but is should be.  It is about a rugby player, but no, that doesn’t make it like “Invictus.” Rather, it’s a hybrid of “Downhill Racer” (see below) and “On the Waterfront.” Frank Machin (Harris) is a talented rugby player who finally gets his big break to go professional. But his new-found glory is nothing but poison. He soon learns that while the spotlight is his, and while he can buy all the trappings of wealth, he can never buy love or “class.” He is a sportsman, and to the real elite he will only ever be a rugby player, never an equal. The rugby scenes are great. The acting superb. The moral — an eloquent reminder that the pursuit of greatness is a lonely one if all you’re after is personal glory.

Downhill Racer (1969)

One of Robert Redford’s first starring roles, and easily one of his best. For anyone that’s ever been an athlete in an individual sport, this one should really hit home. Redford plays an American skier, vying for Olympic gold at a time when Americans were the underdogs on the international skiing circuit. A talent who climbed his way from the foggy unknown, he is a self-centered egoist out to hog the spotlight from his US teammates. There is no I in team, but there is a me. Over the course of the film, Redford’s character learns that success is as a dependent on luck as it is on skill — a terrifying reality for any athlete. It’s a great movie with understated performances that ring true and incredible shots of the downhill skiing (imagine this was shot in ’69, before today’s modern steadicam and digital capabilities). Bode Miller needs to see this one…

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Besides an epic theme song, “Chariots of Fire” boasts a great directing and stellar performances. Much like the other movies, the punch line of this one is that those who seek ever ephemeral glory need a helping hand from Lady Luck.  Of course, that theme is encased in a well-told story of class struggles and religious prejudices. Actually, has anyone noticed that this movie is really about religion?

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