A biennial pursuit of cinematic excellence
Every two years, the Olympics seeks to promote sport, culture and education all while nearly bankrupting the host country and disrupting the locals. With the Summer Olympics and its quadrennial pursuit of a better world through the celebration of excellence, peaceful coexistence, and the joy of effort underway, we take a look at some notable films with the Olympics as a key theme or backdrop.
Walk Don’t Run
This cheerful 1966 production inspired by the 1945 classic The More the Merrier stars a 62 year old Cary Grant in his last film role as a soft-hearted British industrialist playing matchmaker to relative youngsters Jim Hutton and Samantha Eggar in the accommodation strapped environment of Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics. Think Lost in Translation” meets Pillow Talk. Hutton is an American athlete/ “insolvent architect” with a studied and perhaps justified reluctance to admitting just what his “event” is at the Games while Eggar plays a prim young English woman who, through the usual series of comic missteps so beloved of rom-coms, ends up subletting her tiny sliding screen divided Tokyo apartment to both Grant and Hutton. John Standing is also excellent as Eggar’s inevitable wrong choice, obsequious English embassy official (“receding hairline” or “high forehead”?) boyfriend that Grant needs to extricate from the equation.
Much merriment, mix-ups, and transnational Cold War Olympian bonhomie–Hutton’s best buddy is a Russian hurdler– ensue. The film’s amusing enough climax rightly takes place in the midst of Hutton’s acquired taste event in the streets of Tokyo.
The best parts of the film are the echos of literate 1930s screwball comedy patter engagingly anchored by the ever charming Grant putting in a suitably effortless turn for his cinematic swan song.
There’s not much light comedy, peaceful coexistence or pursuit of a better world in Munich, Spielberg’s grim 2005 meditation on vengeance in the wake of the seismic terrorist attack that killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Games. In the film the naive Utopian idealism of the Olympic spirit proves a simultaneously strong counterpoint and poor match for much more deeply rooted and viscerally satisfying Old Testament-style eye-for-an-eye retribution.
More “inspired by real events” than methodically truthful to the facts the film, which received five Oscar nominations, depicts Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir authorizing an off-the-books extrajudicial assassination squad charged to kill 11 PLO operatives linked to the Munich attack.
A Mossad operative played by Eric Bana leads a small team of amateur volunteers. Bana leaves the service prior to launching the operation in order to provide the Israeli government some level of plausible deniability. Some. The film follows the five-member team as their long, bloody, globe trotting quest grittily unfolds and the reality of the endeavor takes both serious mental and physical tolls on all participants. Faster, farther, stronger indeed.
Downhill Racer explores going for the gold and its motivations and costs in one of the most unflinching examinations of the American preoccupation with sport and success yet made. In this powerful 1969 film Robert Redford plays a driven, sometimes tough to root for (until you meet his dad) outsider skiing phenom, while Gene Hackman is a necessarily coolly calculating career US Olympic team coach focused as much on the team’s financial backers as his athletes.
The film takes on the obvious targets of the necessary egoism, obsession, and arrogance of elite athlete, but it doesn’t spare the much more numerous mediocrities, never-weres and hangers-on who, while they may not share the precise character flaws of the world’s overachieving outliers, more than compensate with their own less-than-endearing foibles.
Beautifully filmed in the lush tones and rich colors that characterized the Kodachrome infused cinematography of the late sixties to mid-seventies, the film also benefits from some great dialogue from screenwriter James Salter. Case in point, this freighted exchange between Redford’s character and his laconic, broken, rattlesnake of a Midwestern farmer father.
Father: “Well, I just hope you don’t end up asking yourself the same question some folks ask me. ‘What’s he do it for?’”
David Chapellett: “I’ll be famous. I’ll be champion.”
Father: “The world’s full of them.”
Then there is the film’s fabled, among students of cinema, final sequence which says all one needs to know about the transactional relationship between athletes, their conditionally adoring audiences, and the media that connects them.
Watch the excellent “Miracle” (2005) for the feel good version of the inner workings of the world of winning while others watch. Check out Downhill Racer–even more so than 2014’s almost great but ultimately too cluttered Foxcatcher –if you’re not afraid to pop the hood and get down to the wires.
As a personification of the joy of effort you would be hard pressed to find a better receptacle than iconic distance runner and patron saint of the early days of Nike, Steve Prefontaine as presented in 1998’s Without Limits. At the advent of the first wave of the running phenomenon that swept North America, the Oregon-based Prefontaine with his pursuit of transcendence through the strategically ill-advised “running out front flat out till I have nothing left” attained a guru like standing. In the world of racing he was a one off. He didn’t care if he won. He was pursuing something else.
Indeed, Prefontaine’s “The best pace is suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die!” philosophy cost him any reasonable chance of medaling let alone winning the gold in the 5000m race at the ill-fated 1972 Munich Olympics. In that now legendary competition a young Prefontaine recklessly, ill-advisedly, repeatedly lunges into the lead again and again accelerating the pace depleting vital stores of energy while the ultimate winner, the Finn Lasse Viren, holds back conserving his energy for a last-minute sprint that would leave the other runners and a clearly spent Prefontaine in the dust.
The fact two major movies were green-lit about this charismatic record breaking collegiate runner who, nevertheless, mostly, spectacularly flamed out at major international events is testimony to the enduring impact “Pre” and his philosophy had on both track and the wider world.
Prefontaine’s coach Bill Bowerman is also a powerful presence in the film. Apart from being seen to co-found Nike, he created many of the brand’s iconic designs, the film also touches on the key role Bowerman played during the Black September attack at the Munich Games. Decorated WWII veteran Bowerman not only was the first to alert outside authorities to the attack, after giving shelter to an escaped Israeli athlete found pounding on his door at 5 am that fateful morning, he also provided the rebuttal to those who said that tragedy should have ended the Games.
“From 776 BC to 393 AD, Olympians laid down their arms to take part in these Games. They knew there is more honor in outrunning a man than killing him. So you must not believe that running, or jumping, or throwing are meaningless. They were your fellow Olympians’ answer to war. They must be yours.”
Chariots of Fire
Worth seeing if only for the exhilarating training montages set to Vangelis’s sweeping soundtrack. This tale of a Jewish sprinter running against anti-semitism and his saintly, yet surprisingly unannoying, Scottish rival is remarkable for how its golden hues, script, actors and accouterments believably and pleasurably capture an era. Chariots is effortlessly of its time.
Ben Cross, Ian Charleson and Ian Holm so fully inhabit and comfortably fit their characters by the time we reach the film’s climax the audience is fully invested in them and their struggles. What happens matters and the climatic showdown at the 1928 Paris Olympics is an occasion of both great drama and joy. In the interests of staying on an even keel when it comes to the Olympic spirit one might want to watch this on a double bill with I, Tonya (2017).
Honorable mentions: I Tonya (2017), Race (2016), Foxcatcher (2014), Miracle (2004), Personal Best (1984), Running Brave (1983), The Games (1970).