With the much-awaited MS Dhoni biopic starring Sushant Singh Rajput coming up (and for once, I’m looking forward to an Indian sports biopic), maybe it’s time to look at some of the little-known films of this genre. We all know about the popular ones – like Ali, Rush, The Fighter, Invictus, Cinderella Man, Seabiscuit, Moneyball, Remember the Titans, Pele, The Babe, Coach Carter and some more. These are the ones that have been watched all over the world, but there are some that have gone under the radar.
I’ve watched many of them over the years, and being quite a big fan of both sports biographies and biopics, here’s my list of some Hollywood titles you may have missed over the years:
Cool Runnings (1993)
Yes, the Winter Olympics is a much-ignored event as far as world attention goes, and even more so on screen. But some of the most charming efforts and stories have come out of here – especially about underdogs (and countries) who have no prior history in the snow. One of the earliest I can remember from my childhood is this one – a funny, warm and inspiring story about the first Jamaican Bobsleigh team at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. It tells the story of four Jamaicans – three of them sprinters who failed to qualify for the Summer Olympics – and their coach (the late John Candy), a former disgraced Olympic gold medalist. What follows is their journey from the hot dustbowls of the islands to Canada’s freezing temperatures on a wing and a prayer, with no support from their sports department, hardly any skills, little money and DIY equipment. And the true story still holds place in many hearts from the time, especially when they did their country and the world proud with their brave performance in the Games. They were one of two magical stories from the Games that year. The other one was –
Eddie The Eagle (2016)
UK hadn’t participated in the sport of ski jumping at the Winter Olympics for six decades before 1988. Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, a mustached-young man who just wanted to be an Olympian somehow, took up the sport a mere year before the event, and with the help of an ex-wasted-talent (Hugh Jackman), as most of these stories go, he qualifies for the Olympics (a princely jump of 70m as compared to an average of 100m by the Finnish champion) and show some steel there. The actor who plays him, Taron Egerton, does a fine job of looking almost ‘special’ and innocent in his pursuit of greatness, making us empathize heavily with the bespectacled British legend. He became a media sensation there with the Jamaican bobsleigh team (who are mentioned in passing during his finals).
Million Dollar Arm (2014)
Not little-known, this film, given that it was released in India, and is about two Indian boys who won a talent competition run by American scouts and ended up being drafted as pitchers in US baseball leagues. But director Craig Gillespie, along with actor Jon Hamm (of Mad Men fame) as the sports agent whose brainchild this is, makes this a very relatable East-meets-West little crossover film. The boys, played by Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal, give a good account of themselves, and though the film lends itself to a little exoticism, one can’t help but feel good about an unorthodox story that became more than just a promotional gimmick. Or so we’d like to believe.
McFarland, USA (2015)
One of the most intriguing and unlikely American sports stories, football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner, doing yet another washed-out coach act) moves to a back-of-beyond immigrant town called McFarland with his young family after being fired from his job (repeatedly). Here, he notices how the Latin American kids, those who’re not the best academically in school, are prone to running during their odd jobs and farming – and so, starts a cross-country program for the school, in the process creating a national champion outfit cross-country running team over the few years. We get a curious look into the little-known sport (at least for Indians), and Costner’s no-smile policy works here as the hard-nosed coach looking for a way forward with these underprivileged kids.
We know about Seabiscuit, but Secretariat was perhaps the most famous racing thoroughbred horse of all time – winning the ‘triple threat’ in 1973. This film tells the story of its spunky owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), and her vision and determination to foster a champion horse despite not knowing much about the male-dominated business. Her trainer, played colourfully by John Malkovich, joins forces to give us a very thoughtful and energetic film – one that tells a story of underdogs do more than just make a name. They become the most famous of all time.
Look out also for:
Pawn Sacrifice (2016; Tobey Maguire plays legendary chess player Bobby Fischer), 42 (2013; the story of the racism faced by famous baseball player Jackie Robinson), Hands of Stone (2016; about Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, who once defeated Sugar Ray Leonard under the tutelage of legendary trainer Ray Arcel).