The Reelist: Getting Schooled on Olympians
Dir. Michael Ritchie (1969)
In Michael Richie’s (The Candidate, Bad News Bears) debut film, Robert Redford stars as a cocky young skier who gets brought on to the US Olympic team midseason. With Gene Hackman as his commanding coach, the upstart skier rebels against the team spirit so important to the group, vying solo for the gold to suit his own selfish needs. As he endures, Redford’s character learns a thing or two about competition, the price of winning and the toll such egocentric actions can take on a man. A notable debut film, the skiing alone is worth its weight in snowballs.
Dir. Paul Michael Glaser (1992)
Directed by Starsky himself (but where's Hutch?), this triple axel of a film tells the "love/skate" relationship of a spoiled figure skater who gets matched up with a former ice hockey player as a partner. Egos and toe picks collide between the two before love (duh) overcomes in this romantic comedy, studded with great skating sequences and also marking the first appearance of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tony Gilroy's work on the big screen. While Gilroy's follow ups veered away from the ice, towards murder, Satan and asteroids, Glaser found it harder to kick the sports-film bug and went on to direct The Air Up There and Kazaam. This film has remained big with teenage girls, accompanying many a sleepover through the years, and leading to a "sequel" in 2006.
Dir. Jon Turtletaub (1993)
Not many people would expect to see a team of tropical bobsledders slide into the Winter Olympics. Perhaps that’s what made the story of the Jamaican Bobsled Team at the 1988 games in Calgary so memorable. Or maybe it was a group of Rastas cheering “Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, its bobsled time! COOL RUNNINGS!” which made the iconic 90’s sports movie such a crowd favorite. One of John Candy’s final performances, and another fun flick from Turtletaub, Cool Runnings has stood the test of time and remains an anthem for those who hold the early 90’s dear in their icy little hearts.
Dir. Gavin O’Connor (2004)
Based on the true story of one of the biggest moments on the Olympic hockey rink, Miracle recounts what was later nicknamed “the miracle on ice.” At a time when the Cold War was back on the rise, two of the world’s biggest superpowers and rivals found themselves forced to turn in their missiles in exchange for hockey sticks, skating, scoring and smashing for the gold. The ending may be spoiled for most viewers (spoiler alert: America wins) but in this film, it’s all about the journey and the rush of pride a nation gets when its team of underdogs defeats their biggest competitor for the entire world to see. Bragging rights included.
Dir. Charles Walters (1966)
Set during the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, an English businessman arrives in the city only to be met by a housing shortage. Weaseling his way into an apartment with a conservative woman, he soon introduces a young American Olympian (with a top secret sport) into the equation, playing matchmaker to the two lonely souls. Hilarity ensues, of course, but what makes this truly special is the final appearance of Cary Grant on film. Playing the British Yente, Grant lights up the screen with 60’s Tokyo as his backdrop, ending his career in one of the more memorable outfits he’s donned onscreen.
Dir. Steven Spielberg (2005)
In the aftermath of the tragedy at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where eleven Israeli athletes were held hostage and assassinated by Palestinian terrorists, Steven Spielberg’s epic was born. Led by a former Mossad agent (Eric Bana) with heroics in his blood, a small group of men exact their revenge, executing terrorists one by one. Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich’s portrayal of Israel’s counterterrorism garnered truckloads of controversy. Although called “historical fiction” by Spielberg, the movie took a hard hit for its likening of the Israelis to terrorists and, assuming regret on the part of those commanding the executions. Fiction or not, it still received 5 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and is immortalized by Seth Rogen in Knocked Up with these words: "If any of us get laid tonight, it's because of Eric Bana in Munich."
Dir. Colin K. Gray & Megan Raney (2006)
A TFF alum, this doc follows what starts as a student uprising against the Soviet occupation in Hungary, and turns into a massive suppression by the Soviets, killing 15,000 Hungarians and the execution of their leader. Halfway around the world, at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Hungarian water polo team finds out about what transpired and as fate would have it, ends up in the pool against the Soviet team in the semifinals. In what has since been called the bloodiest game in Olympic history, as well as one of the most symbolic, this match was so violent it nearly led to a riot when one of the players was removed from the game due to excessive blood streaming from his face.
Dir. Hugh Hudson (1981)
Inspired by the lives of two British track stars leading up to the 1924 Olympic Games, director Hugh Hudson channels the adversity they faced onto the screen. One, a devout Scottish missionary, the other is a Jewish student at Cambridge running to escape anti-Semitism. Both fighting to appease their religious and athletic duties, the friends conquer the odds earning gold. More than winning just a couple gold medals, Chariots of Fire was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, and won 4 including Best Picture and Writing. The music by Vangelis also earned an Oscar and to this day is one of the most rousing tunes around, likely to be found on every Olympian's iPod.
Dir. Robert Towne (1982)
Throwing a cog into the machine of ordinary sports films, Towne's directorial debut (after a storied screenwriting career that includes Chinatown) isn't simply about a girl trying to improve her time in the 50-yard dash. Starring Mariel Hemingway (fresh off Manhattan), Best reveals the intimate and often sexual relationships between athlete and coach, as well as a lesbian relationship between Hemingway's character and her rival (played by real-life track star, Patrice Donnelly). Perhaps not as sexually explicit when set against today's standards, it still comes up in nearly any discussion about queer cinema today, over 15 years after the film's initial release.
Dir. Steve James (1997)
The director of Hoop Dreams ventures into fiction with his next athletic installment, bringing to light the inspirational and tragic story of Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. The Oregon native (and one of the first endorsers of Nike, by the way) smashed records and created a new style of distance running by sprinting nearly the entire race before going to the Olympics in 1972. In a nail-biting 5000 meter race, Pre’s dreams of Olympic gold were crushed within the last legs of the race. Tragedy famously struck Prefontaine again while training for the 1976 games, when he died in a car accident at the age of 24. Immortalized as an American hero and inspiration to the sport, Prefontaine is just one of a handful of films based on his short but motivational life.
Dir. Robert Towne (1998)
Robert Towne's third venture into writing/directing harks back to his debut of Personal Best, creating a biopic of one of America's greatest and most celebrated long distance runners. In the second Steve Prefontaine movie, a result of both the runner's family and the runner's coaches selling their stories to Hollywood, we have Billy Crudup as Pre, defying the preconceived techniques of distance running, contributing to the running boom of the 1970's which gave birth to runners everywhere. Years later, the film continues the same effect on the running community as Pre did in his lifetime, serving as what some call a bible for cross-country teams nation-wide. Although steeped in the sweat of countless marathons, this movie is inspirational for more than just those running a mile, but anyone hoping to move mountains or exceed expectations.