As explained at the start of actual March Madness last month, we have embarked on our 2nd Annual Sports Movie competition for the crown, timed to coincide with the basketball extravaganza that wraps up tonight. And as expected, we are running behind. (Last year’s contest concluded in June, though, clearly revealing that clock management is not our team’s strong suit, so what are you going to do?)
However, there’s still an update to report! Two films have advanced from the opening brackets, and both were technically upsets in one way or another. Exciting!
First up in our nerd version of March Madness: Spike Lee’s third-ranked He Got Game, a favorite among voters, prevailed over my top choice for the year, the classic documentary depiction of the Ali/Foreman bout When We Were Kings. Here’s why.
Carrie felt that When We Were Kings did a great job portraying the historical and cultural context surrounding the fight, but presumed throughout that viewers knew how things would turn out and so didn’t really bother much with the match itself. (She did not know, because she has no interest in boxing whatsoever.) Indeed, it does occupy a surprisingly small amount of screen time. She also charged that there was more than a whiff of exoticism about the whole portrayal, which was only increased by the fact that the commentators we hear most are George Plimpton and Norman fucking Mailer. (The moment when Mailer describes the quiet, somewhat mysterious George Foreman as “the embodiment of Negritude” has to rank up there with the most Norman Mailer-type things Norman Mailer ever saw fit to say to a camera.)
When We Were Kings initially got my vote — and why wouldn’t it? I nominated it in the first place — but I was won over. There’s something inherently exciting about the telling to me, and the cuts between the attendant, Black Power festivities and the difficulties of staging the fight that still really work. I could also just watch Ali talk all day, especially at the height of his electrifying powers. But one of our criteria was, “How well does the film engage with the sport it depicts?”, and on that score, When We Were Kings falls short. There are moments when it makes really clear the relationships between culture, masculinities, and boxing, but that’s not really where its heart is.
We both felt He Got Game was at least one sub-plot too many and a half an hour too long, weighted down by unbelievable dialog, some odd character moments that didn’t jibe, and too many ideas. But these are also simply different ways of saying, “It’s a Spike Lee movie.”
Denzel Washington is mostly superb, the father-son relationship feels legitimately fraught and psychologically revealing, and the way basketball itself is integrated into those dynamics was honest. Lee’s love for the sport — captured in especially stunning fashion in the film’s opening montage — is paired with a pretty bruising awareness of the toll any such obsession can take on individuals. The combat between ego and genuine passion for others is on display throughout, and the lumpy, overlong, stylistically brilliant He Got Game moves on in this version of March Madness.
In our next completed bracket, Carrie’s #2 seed, Valley Uprising, was paired with the sublimely goofy Goon. The goofballs won out over the insanely committed daredevils.
While Carrie is open about the fact that, after any number of horror movies foisted on her, she picked Valley Uprising for March Madness in part to vengefully exploit my fear of heights, she also argued that the doc does an excellent job recounting the generational progress of the sport. It’s full of colorful characters, interpersonal feuds, and incredible images of Yosemite, as mountain-climbing evolves over the years.
Agreed on all counts. If you want to know how techniques developed to the point that people now climb some of these faces in hours instead of weeks, this is your film. It’s also filled with enough cultural context to keep even my terrified ass engaged — the notion that the hippie-mystics who pioneered new approaches in the 60’s would also occasionally drink brandy and drop acid while suspended thousands of feet up sheer rock is among the nuttier things I’ve ever heard. On the other hand, some of the stylistic tics the directors deploy become a bit grating, and the film feels a bit overpacked by the end, particularly as we move into the BASE-jumping section. Still and all, it’s a quality documentary that reveals quite a bit about who these people are and why they do (the entirely bananas) things they do.
But Goon surprised us both. Focusing on the “enforcer” aspect of hockey, it hones in on something that might seem extraneous and reveals it to be key to the sport. Sean William Scott has never been more perfectly cast, his slightly dim-witted but sweet bruiser routinely generating big, reaction-shot laughs and lines delivered with a kind of earnest silliness. (After a piece of soiled paper flies through the air and smacks him as he walks down the street: “Sometimes trash just hits me in the face.”)
For all of its bloody fisticuffs, Goon also boasts some real tenderness, in its love-story but also its characterizations. The expected, offhand homophobia of some of the players is undercut by Scott’s totally sincere, empathetic emphasis on the fact that his brother is gay, shutting them down in hilariously deadpan fashion. It’s one of many contrasts the film sets up between idiot machismo and our protagonist’s basic decency, despite also being the go-to guy when someone needs to be punched in the head. It’s very funny, and advances to the next round.
So there we go! Neither of our picks made it past the first round of March Madness, undone by the wisdom of our voters. Stay tuned for the rest of the brackets, which hopefully will arrive before June does.