Sports movies were powerful once. In the '80s and '90s, there were hits about football, baseball, basketball, hockey, boxing, karate – and they were movies about teams and players and coaches, not scouts and executives.
Things seem to have taken a turn. Moneyball, which received a Best Picture nomination, is about the people who have jobs in sports more than the people who play sports. Draft Day, which will not receive a Best Picture nomination, is too. So is the upcoming Million Dollar Arm. So was Trouble With The Curve. We've still got stories about scouts and executives and agents, and there's the occasional biopic like 42. But where did the movies about sport itself, as it intersects with the lives of regular people who play and love and watch it, go?
It's a question provoked by remembrances of Field Of Dreams, 25 years old this week and as strange of a little piece of work as it ever was. We've had plenty of sports movies for kids with out-of-this-world elements like magical arms and ... well, Space Jam. But there haven't been a lot of adult-targeted dramas incorporating straight-up magical realism, which allows Field Of Dreams to transform the emotional subtext of a lot of these movies directly into text.
Instead of just being about the oft-repeated trope of men and their fathers bonding (or not) through sports, Field Of Dreams brings Ray Kinsella's father back to life, literally, for a long-deferred game of catch. Rather than just being about the connection of sports to childhood even for adults, it shows baseball bodily transforming the aging Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster) into a young man. And rather than simply seeing a tragic figure like Shoeless Joe Jackson as a symbol of lost opportunity, it brings him out of a cornfield – out of the very heart of Americana – for a second chance.
It's a deeply and unapologetically sentimental movie, despite the fact that it actually does contain impressive – and little-remembered – moments of restraint. The first scene in which Ray meets Shoeless Joe, in which Ray's curious and polite reaction is awed but very Midwestern, is a stunner, in part because of the faith the filmmakers had in the sound of crickets. Ironically, it loses its punch when the emotion-goosing piano begins tinkling away in the background.
Hollywood, unfairly or not, has always maintained an unofficial division between regular sentimentality and sentimentality designed to be palatable to men. This is probably one of the few places, in fact, where women are the default: a film simply described as a tear-jerker is usually marketed to women. When one is marketed to men, it's what Tim Grierson at Deadspin called the "male weepie" last year when somewhat ambivalently naming Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) the form's current champion.
In fact, back in 1989, Richard Corliss at Time called Field Of Dreams "the male weepie at its wussiest." There's no reason in the world men shouldn't cry at movies or women should, but the baggage of that assumption is heavy and ever-present.
Sports movies have long been central to male-marketed melodrama: Pride Of The Yankees, Brian's Song, The Champ, The Natural. But those movies – like westerns and war movies, the other most commonly marketed sentimental dude flicks – involved an awful lot of ... you know, death. Death made strong emotion permissible as a response, even if it was more intended to provoke a quiet tear in the eye than the blubbering in which women have always been frankly encouraged to indulge.
What the sports movies of the '80s and '90s – and in fact, sports movies going back at least as far as Rocky in 1976 – got to be good at was using sports, without the heavy baggage of death, to play, sometimes in a less weighty way and sometimes even in comedy, with three issues that resonated powerfully with audiences, including men and boys: camaraderie, fathers, and aging.
While Bull Durham, for instance, can play as a sexy romance between Crash (Kevin Costner) and Annie (Susan Sarandon), with comic relief from Nuke (Tim Robbins), its poignancy comes from its study of the end of Crash's long career as a not-quite-major-league-caliber catcher. Here's a man who will leave baseball largely unrecognized, both because he spent much of his career making pitchers better and because he's ambivalent about becoming, for instance, the all-time homerun leader in the minor leagues.
Crash is positively tragic if you compare his accomplishments to his original goals, but not if you simply ask the question of whether he leads a good life. Costner's other film with writer-director Ron Shelton, the not as good but still underrated golf movie Tin Cup, covers a lot of the same ground.
While films about female athletes are far rarer, there's a similar bittersweet tang to A League Of Their Own, in which Dottie (Geena Davis) walks away from baseball to be with her husband, despite how much she loves it. She has other priorities; there is life outside the game, and it's time to attend to it. That's on top of the story's constant burbling undercurrent that these women are all destined to be mistreated, thrown over when the male players return from the war. Just like Crash, Dottie is evidence that athletes sometimes have to love the games they play enough to forgive them their profound injustices.
You even get some of this from The Replacements, a lightweight comedy that posits Keanu Reeves as a failed quarterback dragged off his boat to work as a replacement player during an NFL strike. Just like we do with Crash and Dottie and Tin Cup McAvoy, we find him suspended at the moment when he's moving from athlete to former athlete, coming to terms with life after competition.
That's not to even mention the heft of some of the better straight-up Big Game Movies like Hoosiers, which follows an underdog Indiana basketball team to a suitable underdog's ending, but not without certain suggestions of pain, both for the coach, played by Gene Hackman, and for an alcoholic team supporter played by Dennis Hopper.
There are almost always fathers in these stories, sometimes literally and sometimes in the simple fact that coaches in sports movies are effectively fathers, and the push-pull of wanting to please and wanting to pull away comes up with coaches that comes up with fathers and with, in films like An Officer And A Gentleman, superiors in the military. In Hollywood, when you want to sell sentimentality to men and encourage them to be unembarrassed by it, you background their romantic relationships and foreground their relationships with whatever men a generation older they are trying to understand and gain understanding from. (In Field Of Dreams, this is not only true with Ray's father, but also with Jackson and the reclusive writer Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones – who, in the novel Shoeless Joe, was actually an imagined version of J.D. Salinger, exactly the frustrating, unavailable mentor a novelist might come up with.)
In fairness, it's not all or nothing: Jerry Maguire in 1996 had a lot of the same themes of the teetering feeling of early middle age, despite being about an agent. And plenty of sports movies about teams have been soulless and cynical. But on the whole, it seems depressing to have moved from sports films mostly about athletes and coaches to sports films mostly about agents and the front office.
Draft Day falls so emotionally flat because it isn't really about sports; it's about business. It could just as easily be about a man negotiating shipping contracts as about the general manager of the Cleveland Browns negotiating draft picks.
What makes sports films work really is the connection to the sport itself. Costner's general-manager character in Draft Day gives no particular indication that he loves football. He seems to understand it pretty well, but he doesn't seem to love it, and he mostly seems beleaguered to have the job he does in the first place. In Draft Day, football is a product like shoes or computers – or movies – where, if you're going to follow the ins and outs of who wins and who loses, you mostly spend your time watching guys on the phone arguing about money. It's very, very difficult to write a good movie about guys on the phone arguing about money. Not impossible, perhaps, but very, very difficult.
Guys trying to outmaneuver each other on the telephone by hollering about millions of dollars will never match the scene in Bull Durham where the conference on the pitchers' mound incorporates discussions of wedding presents, visiting fathers (there's that theme again), and curses. Baseball is narratively rich; trading players is narratively thin unless you give it a lot of help.
Scouts, agents, managers, owners: that's fine, but it's different. It's a little hollow inside. It's a little sad.