Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2006 / 5 Tishrei, 5767
Surprise success of new sports flick shows highlights Americans yearning for heroes and underdogs who conquer adversity
With the surprisingly strong opening weekend for Gridiron Gang, a rousing if formulaic true story about an underdog team from a California youth detention camp, the game of football seemed to enjoy a notable winning streak at the box office.
Just three weeks before Gridiron Gang scored with the public (earning nearly $15 million and winning top spot in ticket sales), another beat-the-odds pigskin picture seized and held the No. 1 position. Invincible told the real-life tale of Vince Papale, an aging substitute teacher and bartender with no experience in college ball who fought his way into an unlikely career in the NFL. Other recent Hollywood hits (Remember the Titans in 2000, Friday Night Lights in 2004 and the remake of The Longest Yard in 2005) seem to confirm the uniquely potent appeal of football films and the public's particular partiality to the gridiron game. Nevertheless, all these films also share a theme of determined underdogs overcoming obstacles to achieve seemingly impossible goals, while each of them except The Longest Yard tells a well-publicized story from real life.
In fact, the consistent success of such releases probably shows more about a hunger for heroes, for inspiration and uplift, than any preference for one sport over another.
LOSERS AND WINNERS
Oliver Stone's NFL epic Any Given Sunday was sacked for a major loss in 1999, despite an all-star cast (Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, LL Cool J, Dennis Quaid) because of its cynical approach to the game. Meanwhile, other feel-good, come-from-behind, impossible-dream-come-true stories from other sports (The Rookie in 2002 about baseball, Seabiscuit in 2003 about horse racing, Miracle in 2004 about hockey and Glory Road in 2006 about college basketball) connected well with the same eager audiences that embraced Invincible and Gridiron Gang.
Beyond our undeniable national love affair with football, we have indulged an even longer-standing romance with underdogs and uplift. Americans clearly crave the experience of coming into a multiplex, plunking down our 10 bucks and then coming out of the darkness feeling better than when we entered. This should surprise no one, since most citizens of this country descend from imperiled voyagers who came here on immigrant ships or slave ships, clinging to unreasonable hopes and a stubborn belief in fresh starts and second chances. This nation remains the world center for overcoming obstacles and winning improbable victories that are by no means limited to the world of sports. In business, the arts, the military, even politics, prohibitive favorites regularly see themselves upset and surprised by disadvantaged nobodies from nowhere, the proverbial hicks from Hicksville. To some extent, that's the American dream that still inspires tens of millions of our unshakably optimistic countrymen, both native-born and immigrants, and in Hollywood's "Golden Age" in the '30s and '40s, the greatest filmmakers regularly celebrated these stirring underdog stories.
Acclaimed and popular films conveyed the irresistible message that in this country, hard work, talent, decency and determination can triumph over every sort of resistance and disadvantage as they did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (about a hayseed youth camp director who takes the Senate by storm), Sergeant York (a pacifist hillbilly whose unexpected military exploits make him the greatest battlefield hero of World War I), Young Mr. Lincoln (the ultimate American underdog educates himself and becomes a great lawyer), Yankee Doodle Dandy (plucky Irish-American kid becomes the toast of Broadway) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (gifted preteen girl starts on her path to literary glory, despite an impoverished immigrant family crippled by alcoholism). It's sad that the only remaining arena for this sort of quintessentially American storytelling appears to involve athletics.
Regarding other fields of endeavor, the public has become more cynical, with a sense that the game is rigged against outsiders and long shots. We regularly hear that the rich get richer and that middle-class Americans face a blocked path to advancement.
This widespread skepticism helps to justify the absence of inspirational, underdog, non-sports movies, while the absence of such movies simultaneously serves to feed that widespread skepticism. When it comes to high-profile games, we still believe in miracles, but the big studios largely ignore the everyday miracles that continue to characterize American life, whether it's an impoverished black kid from a broken home making his way to Harvard and the U.S. Senate, or countless immigrants who take their place as doctors, lawyers or captains of industry.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a study that concluded: "Most CEOs of the biggest corporations didn't attend Ivy League or other highly selective colleges." Instead, they studied at two-year community colleges (Bill Green, head of Accenture), Pittsburgh State University in Kansas (H. Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart), or Ithaca College (Robert Iger of Walt Disney). Entertainment industry decision-makers (such as Iger) might believe that today's stressed and wary Americans would look askance at any tales of improbable triumph or uplift outside the realm of big-time sports, but the best response to that groundless fear comes from paraphrasing another memorable (and hugely successful) film about athletics and redemption. In Field of Dreams, the main character learns a lesson that Hollywood moguls should keep in mind: "If you build it, they will come."
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