There’s something wrong when competitive sports becomes lucrative business.
Sports films have come and gone, but the good ones won’t ever die. If it’s a truly genuine tale, it won’t be about the sport but about the people and the values of the game. Such is the case with Hoosiers, the immutable story of grass roots high school basketball. Such is not the case with Varsity Blues, but it at times resonates the former’s greatness. Let’s take a closer look:
- Small-town high school sports
- Star players
- Hard-headed head coaches
David Anspaugh, who incidentally directed Rudy, knows the sports genre well. He practically invented it with Hoosiers. The film is set in a small Indiana town where basketball is just shy of God; after all, the town’s minister drives the bus and his son plays on the team. Blues centers around high school football in deep south Texas, where pedantic religion and competitive athletics are equally intertwined. Case in point: both movies have a prayer before the “big game.”
Blues was produced in part by MTV, of all people. They want us to believe that it aspires to be more. I can’t – no, I won’t – ever believe MTV to be “about” much more than a consumer machine, pumping out lots of hip trend-setting imagery atop the latest industry-standard music. The fact that they have “branched” out into the documentary world with “Real World” and “Road Rules” is admirable, but overshadowed by it’s corporate influence on the youth pop culture.
The strengths in these sports films are off the court / field. In Hoosiers, the newly-appointed head coach Norman Dale (the excellent character actor Gene Hackman) has slice-of-life conversations with local townspeople and love interest played by Barbara Hershey. The most interesting dialog in Blues comes from the second-string quarterback James Van Der Beek and the enormous but tender-hearted lineman Ron Lester, as they realize there’s more than football outside of West Canaan, Texas.
There’s also the head coaches that are somewhat similar. Coach Dale has a shady past that comes back to haunt him when the townspeople, fed up with a bad losing streak and unorthodox coaching, vote to oust him. He demands from his players absolute obedience in order to shape them into his team, not just a good bunch of individual players. In Blues, Coach Kilmer is somewhat of a caricatured domineering coach bent on capturing his 23rd division title. There are obligatory scenes thrown in of abusive coaching (mental debasement, use of painkillers for bad injuries, etc.). But the sad part is that most of this is very true in the sports world.
- The melding of diverse talent into teamwork vs. the corruption and economic domination of sports.
- The cathartic vindication vs. the megalomaniacal meltdown of head coaches.
Hoosiers and Blues differ fundamentally. Hoosiers is perhaps the more appreciative of the notion of teamwork, whereas Blues is the champion of individualism and the proper priority of sports. In Hoosiers, we see the team pre-Coach Dale, and they were good but not cohesive. They (and the town) relied heavily on Jimmy, the star player. But when he quits in pursuit of academic scholarship, the team is desperate. Without much care for any one star, Dale takes over and attempts to mold them into a team. He is concerned for their discipline in fundamentals, not individual showmanship. He even sees potential in the town drunk, an alumni of the team and a father of one of Dale’s players. Dale appoints him the assistant coach upon his sobriety.
Meanwhile in Blues, Coach Kilmer feeds on the talent of his football team. Their success is his success and he’s insatiable. Twenty-two titles aren’t enough. He’s coached all of his present team’s fathers, so his legacy is as solid as his ego. Enter the second-string quarterback Jonathan ‘Mox’ Moxon who reads Kurt Vonnegut instead of the play book. His interests lie outside of pleasing Kilmer, although he loves the sport.
His listlessness and determination of free will is reminiscent of Dazed and Confused, a rather romp look at high school life in the sexually-charged 70s. The underlying plot of that movie was also football, in which the troubled star quarterback struggles with purpose and who he’s really playing for (“If I do play, it’s going to be on my terms.”). Same message in Blues. The search for relevance and perspective is clear, and we do indeed get to find it with Mox.
He is eclipsed by a better player, the star quarterback Lance Harbor, played by Paul Walker who can’t seem to shake that Eddy Haskell image he wore in Pleasantville. When Lance becomes injured well beyond Kilmer’s ability to “fix” with drugs, Mox has the opportunity to become the new football god in the town. At first, the newfound stardom goes to his head as his popularity skyrockets and cheerleaders shed their pom-poms and skirts for him. Our hero stays true to his dream though and convinces others of it too. He consoles Billy Bob, the huge lineman, that Kilmer’s acceptance isn’t the only reason for playing. Mox assures Darcy, the cheerleading vixen, that throwing herself at the star quarterback – whoever that might be at the moment – isn’t the only way out of this town.
Kilmer’s grip on the players is evident in his big game speech at the end, “These are the next 48 minutes of the next 48 years of your life.” Mox’s father suffered the same militant degradation from Kilmer and he finally gets a shot at redemption through his son. We see the same mentality at work in Hoosiers that broke the esteem of the town drunk when he failed to make the winning basket of an important game years ago. With that one loss in a mere game, the entire spirit of the person is stripped away. Fortunately, Mox’s definition of heroism shifts from Coach Kilmer’s. Mox rallies his teammates, “We have the chance to play like gods today… This was our day, and no one can take that away.” He realizes that being a hero is playing without the fear of losing, not playing without error.
Blues‘ isn’t without its faults. There are some goofy subplots that really detract from the movie and could easily have been cut. For instance, Mox’s younger brother is some weird little monk on a spiritual journey. So much for Southern Baptist upbringing. And then there’s the Sex Ed teacher who winds up at the local strip club, gratuitously bearing all. What’s the point?
To its credit, Blues presents some good insights into the sports world and its hold on us as consumers. I’m reminded of the college football movie The Program with James Caan, and it’s depiction of the modern athletic world as not just about competitive sports, but lucrative business. In Spike Lee’s distinctive narrative style, He Got Game shows the same theme inside college basketball, as a top recruited player feels the pressures of the NCAA and an opportunistic father taking advantage of his son’s ability. Sadly, the programs aren’t really at fault; they are just trying to meet the demands of a blood-thirsty audience.
To see all of these very real experiences firsthand, one should round out the library with Hoop Dreams, the excellent documentary on high school basketball.