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5 Films About Real-Life Sporting Controversies

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist November 5, 2013 at 2:15PM

It will surprise exactly no one to learn that few of us here at the Playlist ever sat at the jocks’ table in high school and only a very few of really count ourselves as major sports fans. However there are aspects of modern sporting culture that, whether or not we find ourselves transfixed by the swing of a bat or the call of a line judge, we can’t avoid becoming caught up in. With sportsmen and women become uber-celebrities off the pitch/field/court/lawn as well as on, there’s an unavoidable tendency to make them into mythic symbols of how talent and application can indeed bring everything our society defines as success: wealth, fame, respect and glory.
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Score Moneyball

Moneyball” (2011)
If all had gone to plan, as of this week, we’d have had another Bennett Miller movie to feature on this list, but of course “Foxcatcher,” the director’s account of the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, has been moved to a release date sometime next year. So we’ll make do with his last account of a controversial incident in American sporting history, his adaptation of the bestselling Michael Lewis book, “Moneyball.” A retelling of the pivotal role that the then relatively untrusted sabermetrics system played in the success of the Oakland A’s in 2002, the film is necessarily less comprehensive than the book but still presents a compelling picture of the game at a pivotal moment of change. What’s most impressive, though is that Miller and his excellent cast, including a career-best Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Chris Pratt, take what should by rights be an undramatic story (that actually works in reverse from the more standard sports picture by having its real agent of change be a nerdy guy who’s read a book or two and is handy with a calculator) and makes it, thanks to an absolutely excellent, Oscar-nominated script, into something gripping. Since the book’s publication, the term “Moneyball” has entered baseball lexicon and many of the bigger teams have hired sabermetric analysts. But what’s so fascinating about the period detailed, and what is so well captured in the film is the resistance that baseball traditionalists had, and still have, to the system. Despite its success in allowing a team with a much smaller budget to compete at a much higher level (a kind of playing-field-leveler that you might think the old guard might embrace) there was some resistance to it as an overly mathematical, “accounting” way of looking at stats and crunching numbers that somehow diminished the beauty and the mystery of the sport. Of course the competitive advantage that the Oakland A’s attained during that season has been largely eroded by sabermetrics’ more widespread acceptance since then, but what “Moneyball” does, in a skillful and glossy manner is take a grown-up look at the world of baseball away from the pitcher’s mound and the jumbotron. In the back room deals and telephone conversations about VORP and TPI and other acronyms the film reveals what most of us in our heart of hearts already know about the professional sports we love: that the actual business of the Nation’s Favorite Pastime is a numbers game. Where traditional baseball pictures tend to build up the mythos and mystery around the sport “Moneyball” strips a great deal of that away to show the working joints and sinews beneath. And if that makes it all fractionally less mysterious, it doesn't necessarily follow that the game is any less beautiful as a result.

Jim Thorpe Lancaster

Jim Thorpe—All-American” (1951)
The really controversial moment in the career of Jim Thorpe, a career beset by prejudice and personal tragedy, is given relatively little screen time in the Michael Curtiz’ biopic of the legendary Native American all-round athlete, but it is the pivotal moment around which the movie, and Thorpe’s life seemed to hinge. Portrayed by Burt Lancaster as more or less a physical force of nature, Thorpe was born to two half-Caucasian parents but was raised as an American Indian (the term at the time) on a reservation, at a time when not all Native Americans were even regarded as U.S. citizens. The film is constructed as an extended flashback which follows, in that breathlessly narrated style so typical of biopics of the time, the young Thorpe as he attends Carlisle Indian Industrial School where his athletic aptitude is soon noticed by coach Pop Warner, who persuades him to join the track team which in time comprises just him and one other guy—a long distance runner. He also joins and ends up leading the football team as his fame rises, before marrying and entering the 1912 Olympics. At that event he wins the decathlon and the pentathlon and it’s here that Curtiz’s rather by-the-numbers rise and fall story turns on its heel, with Thorpe thereafter being stripped of his medals for the seemingly minor infraction of having been paid a pittance to play baseball one summer. Despite his protestations of ignorance of the rule, he is deemed a “professional” and therefore disqualified from the Games he’d dominated. And while he pursues a successful professional career in both baseball and football afterwards, a bitterness sets in and, following the death of his beloved son, his life gradually falls apart as he gives in to drink and dissipation. He drives his wife away, leading to a nadir which shows him commentating on dance marathons dressed in a feathered headdress. Subtle it ain’t, and in some ways the picture is a strange time capsule in that its heart is clearly in the right place as regards the injustice of the prejudices that Thorpe faced all his life, but it still holds attitudes forged in the early '50s, not a particularly reconstructed time to the modern eye. Still, Lancaster’s reliable brawny charisma and the glossiness of the filmmaking just about carry the story through, though just how much justice the broad strokes of any Hollywoodized version could do to the real man’s incredible achievements is debatable. The real Thorpe, however gained posthumous vindication when, thirty years after his death, his medals were reinstated. Warner Bros., in fact had been among the first to petition the return of the medals while planning the film (would have made for better bookending than the Oklahoma Hall Of Fame dinner!) but that return was consistently blocked by Avery Brundage, one of the competitors Thorpe had beaten, and subsequently the head of the International Olympic Committee. As to whether or not racism played any part in Thorpe’s disqualification, it’s hard to tell, but one stat seems remarkable: Thorpe was one of only three men ever to have his medals revoked for reasons other than drugs, and the other two were for gross misconduct.

Cobb Jones

Cobb” (1994)
The question, when approaching director Ron Shelton’s biopic/expose of the first-ever inductee into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, and to-this-day contender for the title of greatest baseball player of all time, Ty Cobb, is not “what’s the controversy?” it’s “which controversy?” The studs-sharpening? The match fixing? The acquittal from match fixing which was itself rumored to be because Cobb knew enough dirt on other players to bring the game down? The time he beat up a guy with no arms? The time he pistol-whipped a man in an alleyway and left him to die? The list of real and alleged infractions goes on, and the film, based on the kiss-and-tell book by Al Stump entitled “Cobb: A Biography,” tries to hit them all. Supposedly a warts-and-all-and-then-some-more-warts depiction of the ‘real’ man behind the legendary on-field warrior, it deals with Stump being hired by Cobb in his waning years to ghostwrite his autobiography, a hagiographic piece designed to portray Cobb as a prince among men. That book was actually published (“My Life in Baseball: The True Record”) and the film comes across as part mea culpa on the part of the writer (played by Robert Wuhl) for printing the legend, part desire to “set the record straight” and part wholehearted character assassination. Because as much as Shelton, the director of peerless baseball classic “Bull Durham” seems to want to deliver a nuanced piece that gets to the heart of the contradictions that made up this famous figure, here the script just isn’t up to the job and instead we get a longwinded and occasionally hokey portrait of an unrepentant racist, wife beating, child-neglecting, violent, possibly murderous, allegedly match-fixing megalomaniacal prick (with very little real screen time given to his actual accomplishments or skills). Perhaps part of the problem is the absolutely domineering, dominating performance by Tommy Lee Jones in the title role, one that many critics cite as massively underrated yet which we’ll confess to finding, in it's ornery scenery-chewing and gun-toting slur-spouting just a bit broad and one-note. The occasional attempts at a kind of “Grumpy Old Men” tone also undercut the films darker impulses, as when Stump drives across several states with Cobb to a dinner in his honor, or in the misjudged scene, when Cobb’s humiliation and near-rape-at-gunpoint of a young cigarette girl (Lolita Davidovitch) culminates in a moment of light relief, when we discover he can’t get it up and instead wants to pay her to say that he was a great, priapic lover. It’s a lurching, oddly paced melodrama that fans of performances deemed ”titanic” will enjoy, but which overall left us with a sour taste in the mouth. Perhaps that's why we were unsurprised to learn that the book on which the film was based has itself come in for controversy, with Stump being accused of at the very least sensationalizing and at worst fabricating the evidence, and the encounters, on which he based it.

With sporting films primarily being seen by Hollywood as opportunities for against-all-odds, never-say-die-style inspirational stories, there are few enough major productions that go into this seamier side of things. On TV, however, as well as many half-hour documentaries dedicated to everything from Rosie Ruiz (who cheated the Boston Marathon) to Ben Johnson (who had his 100m medal stripped due to doping) to Zola Budd (who famously "tripped" Mary Decker during the 1984 3000m Olympic final), we've had not one but two movies about the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan affair, though it's the fictionalized account, the Movie of the Week-sounding "Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story" starring Heather Langenkamp, that we're probably destined to end up catching on TV some wet Tuesday. How about you, have you any favorites that fit the bill?

This article is related to: Features, Feature, The Armstrong Lie, Alex Gibney, Moneyball, John Sayles, Bennett Miller, Tommy Lee Jones


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