- There were no truly excellent sports films in 2017, but I, Tonya and Battle of the Sexes, which manage to tell very famous stories in new ways, are worth catching over the holiday season.
When it comes to notable sports films, 2017 was particularly light in its offerings. There was "The Goon: Last of the Enforcers," a not-very-well-received sequel to the original Goon, that's currently sitting pretty with a 43% Rotten Tomatoes rating. There's “Borg vs. McEnroe,” a film on the rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe (played by Shia Labeauf) that McEnroe has already expressed his distaste for (shocker!)
And then there were the two highlights, films that focused on women athletes who dominated the respective news cycles of their time period, albeit in very, very different ways. SI has already deemed I, Tonya the best sports film of the year in this week’s Magazine (SI's Ben Reiter has a much longer look at the film here), and the other is a relevant, though not exceptional, film on one of the most iconic sporting events of our time:
— I, TONYA: An enjoyable, though at times difficult to watch film, the dark comedy I, Tonya re-tells the story of the life of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) through its very unreliable mix of narrators. The directors purposefully keep us off balance, leaving us to wonder what’s the truth and what’s a lie, and at times break the fourth wall as the characters talk directly to the screen to convince us of their side. (The most jarring example of this is during one of the more violent scenes in a movie full of them, when Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly, is beating her up, and she looks directly into the camera to tell us this actually happened.)
Although the movie's not really teaching any new information to those who already know the story well, nor is it attempting to make us like any of the players in the film more than we did going into it (even the one it's named for), it's able to tell a story that's been told so many times in a relatively fresh way.That’s in large part thanks to the performances of Robbie and Allison Janney, who is, as usual, outstanding in her cold and frightening portrayal of Tonya’s awful, abusive mother (a line of hers that stuck with me in particular: When she tells her daughter, “You’re a dumb piece of sh—who thinks you deserve to get hit.”). It’s a film that’s funny, almost to an uncomfortable extent, balancing the laughs with some really gruesome violence and a dizzying soundtrack of 70’s-80’s songs. It drags a bit toward the end, and by its completion, you feel pretty worn down. But then again, that feeling is a pretty apt encapsulation of the insane circumstances and their impact on Harding: The immense violence, the rampant classism … it all finally wore her down. [Read Ben Reiter's full review here].
— BATTLE OF THE SEXES is not a great film, but it is a film that came out at the perfect time in this country, a pertinent movie that allows us to look back at the triumphs of Billie Jean King’s most famous accomplishment I WAS PREPARED TO ARGUE THIS, SEEING AS HOW SHE WON 12 GRAND SLAM SINGLES CHAMPIONSHIPS, BUT IT IS PROBABLY TRUE, as well as question why more has not changed in the time since. Early in the film, King (played by a convincing but not spectacular Emma Stone), has a conversation with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) in his office about the discrepancies in the purse for the men’s and women’s tennis champions. We’ve heard plenty of echoes of that same discussion more than 30 years later—the U.S. women’s soccer team spoke out in 2016 to bring attention to the same issues (the World Cup bonus money for men was $35 million; it was $2 million for the women, while the U.S. men were paid more despite being less successful), and the U.S. women’s hockey team embarked upon a two-week protest in 2017 for fair pay. The film succeeds in serving as a necessary reminder that while Billie Jean King did indeed make equality a possibility for female athletes, we’re still far away from the end game she would truly desire.
All that said, I found the film itself ultimately disappointing. It was a movie that tried to be too many things all at once—an exploration into the complex lives of two separate characters (King and Bobby Riggs), a complicated and emotional love story that’s rooted in a societally imposed repression of true feelings, and, of course, the retelling of what is arguably the most famous tennis match in American history. Loading all of these storylines on top of each other, with what is at many times some very clunky writing, made it difficult for the film to achieve any real balance. Sections lagged in momentum; characters went underdeveloped; clichés were leaned on. The high point doesn’t arrive until toward the end, when the movie finally focuses on the match it’s named for. The costumes and sequences from the lead-up to that match effectively convey the mix of chaos, absurdity and importance of the event for an entire generation of viewers who didn’t get to witness it live. The end alone, along with the illuminating performance of Carrel as the blowhard-but-not-altogether-terrible Bobby Riggs, is worth tuning in for the next time the film pops up on demand.
Notable Mention: I haven't watched it, but if you're looking for some laughs, HBO's mockumentary Tour de Pharmacy, starring Andy Samberg and Orlando Bloom with plenty of of star-studded cameos, pokes fun at the rampant doping throughout professional cycling. (And, if you're looking for a real, very serious documentary on a similar topic, you can check out Icarus, on Russia's Olympic doping scandal, which SI's Dan Greene called the best sports doc of the year).