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The Best of the Olympics on Film

July 27, 2012

“And you will run your time/A shooting star across the sky/And you will surely cross the line”

-Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “The Runner”

“Running, one might say, is basically an absurd past-time upon which to be exhausting ourselves. But if you can find meaning, in the kind of running you have to do to stay on this team, chances are you will be able to find meaning in another absurd past-time: Life.”

Without Limits

The 2012 Olympics start tonight, and while the Games don’t seem to carry the importance they once did – whether it’s because of the tragedy (Munich 1972), politics (the boycotts in 1980 and 1984) or controversy (most recently, whether the Munich tragedy will be remembered tonight) that seem to be a by-product these days, or the way money, inevitably, has taken over, or because, if you live in the U.S., you more likely than not have to put up with insipid, ethnocentric announcing (when I lived in Canada, we were blessedly free of that), or simply because, like every other network TV show, the Games simply have been lost in the shuffle of our fragmented world – it’s a highly anticipate event. I’m not the optimist I used to be, but I do think there is something kind of inspiring about people from completely different backgrounds competing in different kinds of events. Plus, I ran track and field for one year in high school and cross country for two years, and in eighth grade, I competed in a pentathlon (though, to be charitable, I wasn’t that good; I finished third in an 800 meter race once at a meet – which, if track and field is still scored the same way, was worth one point – but that was only because there were only three other people in the race), so I know the mindset a little.

Since this is a movie blog, I’m also moved to wonder why there aren’t more movies about the Olympics. There have been, of course, movies dealing with what happened in Munich in 1972, whether made-for-TV (21 Hours at MunichMonday Night Mayhem also touched on it somewhat), documentary (One Day in September), or feature film (Munich; John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday and Olivier Assayas’ Carlos also touch on it peripherally), but very few movies dealing with the actual Games. I don’t know if the IOC is just that protective of its image (always possible), if Hollywood is wary of the Games for the reasons listed above, or it’s because TV has taken over in this department, but again, I do think it’s a little sad. Certainly, there’s plenty of drama in many of the events, and there are plenty of famous names in track and field alone (Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses and Mary Decker, to name but a few) whose lives, or careers, might make an interesting film if you managed to avoid the usual sports clichés. To be fair, there aren’t that many movies about the Winter Olympics either, and fewer good ones (the ones I like are Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer (1969) and, to a lesser extent, Gavin O’Connor’s Miracle (2004)). And there are a few I haven’t seen, like Michael Curtiz’s Jim Thorpe: All-American (1951) (it originally was going to air on TCM, but isn’t for some reason). And no, Chariots of Fire is not on this list; I’m afraid I concur with Richard Corliss when he called it “a hymn to the human spirit as if scored by Barry Manilow” (though I do like Vangelis’ score). Aside from that, here are the best films I’ve seen that deal with either the Olympics, or their tryouts.

Jesse Owens

Olympia (1938): Leni Riefenstahl’s landmark documentary is one of two documentaries about the Summer Olympics by renowned filmmakers (the other, Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, about the 1964 Olympics, is unfortunately out of print, so I haven’t seen it). Starting off with shots of Greek ruins, and seguing into shots of athletes performing  activities such as the discus throw and the shot put in traditional Olympic garb of that time (loincloth), Riefenstahl means to immerse us in the traditions behind the Olympics visually, rather than through narration. The film, as originally released, was divided into two parts – “Festival of Nations” and “Festival of Beauty” – but the beauty part comes through here, as Riefenstahl focuses lovingly on the athletes in motion, dissolving constantly to jumping, throwing and running. That paean to beauty will probably smack of glorification of Nazism, as with Riefenstahl’s previous film Triumph of the Will, as a celebration of Aryan beauty was definitely part of Hitler’s message (the fact she screened the film for then-USOC (United States Olympic Committee) president Avery Brundage, a Nazi sympathizer, didn’t help). However, while her previous film definitely qualifies, I think there are two reasons why Olympia can’t be as easily pigeonholed as a celebration of Nazism. Firstly, the opening sequence is too strange to fit that category; it’s almost homoerotic, and there are sequences throughout the film that also qualify.

The other reason Riefenstahl’s film escapes pure propaganda is, of course, Jesse Owens. Owens ended up being the star of that Olympics, winning four gold medals (the 100 and 200 meter races, the long jump, and the 4×100 relay team), and while Hitler might not have wanted him in the competition in the first place (indeed, he didn’t want any blacks or Jews competing), Riefenstahl allows Owens to take center stage , at least in the first film. As a matter of fact, while Germany ended up dominating the games, finishing first in all three medal categories (as well as overall, of course), the U.S., which finished second, gets most of the event coverage that Germany doesn’t get in the movie. Of course, you could see that as a way of sucking up to the U.S., both financially and politically, but it probably also helped the U.S. athletes fit Riefenstahl’s visual aesthetic. At any rate, this strange but compelling film, in both parts, also uses film techniques that went on to influence television coverage of sports for years to come, so it’s important in that respect as well. The other thing of note about Olympia, however, is the quality of the print on the most readily available DVD isn’t that great; there are times the footage is somewhat fuzzy. I do hope a restored version is put out one day.

Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) in competition.

Personal Best (1982): The first of two Robert Towne films about track and field (and, by coincidence, are about the Olympics) that he made, this was also the first film he ever directed. The stereotype about writers who turn director is they tend to be more concerned with the script than with the direction, and with visualizing their scripts. And when you consider Towne at that point was best known for his dialogue in scripts like The Last DetailChinatown and Shampoo, you’d expect more of the same here. Instead, just like Riefenstahl, he expresses his ideas visually through watching what the athletes do. Most of them are graceful at what they do, in competition and even in practice. The one who doesn’t seem to make the grade, at least at first, is Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway). Cahill has the raw talent, but does she have the discipline to make that talent work? One person who thinks so is Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly, a real-life hurdler and pentathlete), who decides to take Cahill under her wing. The two end up falling in love, and Skinner recommends Cahill to Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn), her coach, to have her train Cahill for the 1980 Olympics.

Obviously, the fact this was a gay-themed movie was controversial at the time, but what makes the movie remarkable in many ways is how it treats the relationship as normal, and without any voyeurism. The scene where Cahill and Skinner arm-wrestle is a perfect example; you’d expect their to be titillation, particularly since you can see the chemistry between the two, but Towne avoids that trap. And though Tingloff comes off as a “man’s man” coach who doesn’t want to deal with “women’s problems” – at one point, he yells at Cahill, “Do you actually think that Chuck Noll has to worry that Franco Harris is gonna cry cause Terry Bradshaw won’t talk to him?” – mostly, he’s worried Skinner is trying to manipulate Cahill so she won’t be as good as she is (when Cahill gets into an accident, it seems to confirm Tingloff’s fear, but Towne wisely leaves it open to interpretation). The most controversial element of the film these days is the fact Cahill ends up taking up with Denny Sites (Kenny Moore, a real-life runner and writer about running), a water polo player and swimmer, but while your interpretation may vary, I don’t think Towne is making any moral judgement either way (Sites in the movie certainly doesn’t).

The way the relationship plays out between Cahill and Skinner, set against the 1980 Olympic trials (which they participate in even though they both know the U.S. has boycotted the Olympics by this point) is one reason why I think Towne doesn’t judge his characters sexually. Just as important, though, is how he shows the camaraderie between the two of them and their teammates. This isn’t one of those movies where one athlete on the squad is set up to be the evil one, or one is the constant victim, and so on. Everyone enjoys each other’s company, from their training (which Towne doesn’t skimp on), to the fun they have in playing other games – we seem them playing touch football while the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” plays over the soundtrack – to the parties they have when they’re not in training, and even in the locker room and sauna (which Towne and cinematographer Michael Chapman show without voyeurism). But mostly, it’s how they support each other during practice and the actual meets, and how they encourage each other (when Cahill first runs for Tingloff, a couple of Skinner’s teammates take time out to congratulate her). And Towne and Chapman also catch the poetry when they’re in motion. That, of course, doesn’t come natural to Cahill at first, and Hemingway, in only her third movie role, gets both Cahill’s awkwardness at first and her eventual confidence and fluidity as a runner. Donnelly is also used well, not having that awkwardness that sometimes appears in non-actors, and she has believable chemistry with Hemingway. And Glenn allows you to see through his tough-guy act. I mentioned before Towne doesn’t focus on the dialogue as much as he usually does (except for Tingloff’s speech alluded to earlier, and a scene where Sites tells Cahill she’s competing against herself and no one else), but even without it, he’s able to show in Personal Best what track and field is about better than any fictional movie I’ve ever seen.

Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) tries to run away from the pack.

Without Limits (1998): This biopic of famed runner Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) was Towne’s second track-and-field movie (he co-wrote the film with Moore). The first video store I ever worked at, I put this movie on in the store one day, and my manager at the time asked me what the deal was about Prefontaine. “You mean, why are their two films about him?”, I asked, and sure enough, that’s what he wanted to know (Steve James’ Prefontaine, with Jared Leto in the title role, had come out the year before, and did middling business). I told him Prefontaine was important for a few reasons: (1) at the time both movies came out, Prefontaine (or, as he was known, “Pre”), despite having died at 24 in 1975, at one time held seven long distance running records and still holds the 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter records, (2) Pre not only helped spark the running boom of the 70’s, but also liked playing to the crowds and media and was popular with them, (3) he was known for running distance races as if he was a sprinter, trying to get to an early lead and not relinquishing it (as he once said, he’d rather not win if it was just a matter of only running fast in the last quarter or so of the race), and (4) he tussled off the field with the Amateur Athletic Union, as he believed their designations of what amateur athletes could and couldn’t do was unfair and arbitrary.

James’ movie, shot in a documentary-style approach (featuring “interviews” with the other characters), concentrates as much on Pre’s battles with the AAU as it does on his running, and takes a more sociological approach (perfectly in tune with James’ documentaries like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters). It’s actually a pretty good movie, and Leto is good in the title role, but it doesn’t get into the soul of running like Without Limits does; or, as I’ve often described the movie, James’ movie is prose, but Towne’s is poetry. The entire movie could be described as an argument between Pre and Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland), Pre’s coach at the University of Oregon (as well as one of the founders of Nike). Bowerman was philosophical about running (the quote from the movie at the top of the page is the speech he traditionally gave to members of his team at the start of each season), but he saw it as a science. The first time Pre (and we) sees Bowerman, he’s measuring everybody’s feet so he can best design the shoes to fit them. He also corrects Pre on his stride, and was forever battling what he called Pre’s “front-running tendencies”. Pre, on the other hand, saw running as an art, and as I mentioned above, thought the only way to truly run a race was to go all out every single time, and any other approach cheapened it. What makes Towne’s movie remarkable, particularly in this day and age, is how it sees the wisdom in both views; not just in the fact running is both an art and a science (I don’t think there are too many fans who would dispute that) but in how Pre’s continued assertion there was no such thing as talent (and that he had none) was, as Bowerman put it, a form of arrogance. Pre himself finds that out when he finishes fourth in the Olympics in the 5000 meter race.

Crudup captures that arrogance and determination about Pre, as well as the charisma that made Pre a star (I often wonder if Cameron Crowe watched this movie before casting Crudup as the equally charismatic rock star Russell Hammond in Almost Famous). And Towne and cinematographer Conrad Hall (who also photographed Towne’s previous film, Tequila Sunrise), though they don’t quite match the visual poetry of Personal Best, do capture the excitement of watching Pre run. But the movie, I think, belongs to Sutherland. The “gruff but really kind” mentor figure has been done to death, but what Sutherland does is make it humorous without ever losing his inner toughness. Whether he’s calling Pre “that little rube”, debating him on running strategy, or explaining how he feels about his wife (Judith Ivey), Sutherland is perfectly laconic, ice to Pre’s fire, and yet it never feels calculated. This ranks among his best all-time performances.

As far as the Olympics go, Towne does touch on the hypocrisy amateur athletes had to live under at the time (though he doesn’t go into as much detail as James’ picture does), and, obviously, also touches on the tragedy that occurred (in James’ film, Pre thinks they should cancel the rest of the Games, if I recall correctly; I don’t know if that’s true or was invented for the film). But the centerpiece is that 5000 meter race (Towne uses it as a framing device), and while Pre didn’t “front-run”, it does show how he ran one of the best races of his life (certainly, his best time) and still lost, which again goes back to how Towne is able to show both sides of Pre and Bowerman’s argument without getting heavy-handed about it. It’s not the only reason why I love Without Limits, but it’s one of them.

And now, here are the TV movies about the Olympics that I like:

Rain Murphy (Peter Strauss) running the race even though it doesn’t ultimately matter.

The Jericho Mile (1979): Michael Mann was still basically known as a TV writer when he got a chance to direct this film (Patrick Nolan wrote the script, though Mann rewrote enough of it that he received a co-writing credit), but you could see his stamp already in what technically is his first theatrical film (as it was released that way in Europe). The hero, Rain Murphy (Peter Strauss), is a convict at Folsom prison in California (the movie was actually filmed there), and unlike most other prison movies, he not only deserves to be there, he owns up to it. Rain murdered his father (there’s an implication his father beat his sister, or maybe worse), and is currently serving a life sentence for the crime. Not only that, he’s isolated himself from everyone else in the prison, and from life (his cell is Spartan, without anything except the bare necessities). The only connections he has to the outside world are Stiles (Richard Lawson), his one friend inside bars, and his running, which he does in the courtyard every day. He only does the latter for himself, but the warden (Billy Green Bush) and the prison psychologist (Geoffrey Lewis) – in another subversion, both are portrayed sympathetically – start to wonder if Murphy is good enough to run competitively, especially when a track coach (Ed Lauter) confirms he’s good enough to run in the upcoming Olympics (the ’76 Games). There’s a subplot about Stiles and Murphy getting involved with a rivalry between the main prison gangs (one, a white supremacist group, is run by Brian Dennehy) that’s a little heavy-handed, especially in how it plays out, but otherwise, this is a terrific movie. Not only does it work as a prison movie – Mann shows his trademark realism, at least by network TV standards at the time – but it also works as a track movie; like Chris Cahill and Pre, Murphy may not be a polished athlete, but we see both the drive and the talent.

Rene Fromage and Kit Mambo (both voiced by Michael Fremer) running the grueling 14-day marathon.

Animalympics (1980): In 1976, Steven Lisberger (best known today as the director/co-writer of Tron) conceived a 7-minute animated short that parodied the Olympics; later, he expanded the idea into separate animated films parodying both the Winter and Summer Olympics, but while the Winter one was shown on TV, the Summer was was cancelled because of the boycott. Eventually, both were combined into one film, Animalympics. As the title suggests, the film has animals competing in the Olympic Games (regular events, too, like the marathon – spread over 14 days – downhill skiing, the pole vault, and so on), and also gives us running commentary throughout, with the voices provided by Billy Crystal, Michael Fremer (who also worked on the sound design of Tron), Gilda Radner and Harry Shearer. The 70’s animation and music (both disco and soft rock) might date this for some, and it helps to know some of the announcer personalities being parodied – Radner does her well-known Barbara Walters impersonation (her character, a dog – I think – is named Barbra Warblers), while Crystal’s Rugs Turkell (a peacock) is a takeoff on Howard Cosell (whom Crystal was famous for impersonating), and Shearer’s Keen Hacksaw (a bear) is a riff on Keith Jackson, the famed college football announcer (and yes, it’s ironic a movie that aired on NBC is mostly poking fun at ABC news/sports personalities). Nevertheless, this is a fun movie that can be enjoyed by all, as it gets the silliness of the broadcasts – as well as some of the athletes – down pat, and also engages in some Cold War commentary in a hilarious way, without getting heavy-handed (that marathon).

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From → Movies, TV movies

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