It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make (What is that? One Wayne Garland, a Luis Tiant, an Oscar Gamble?), but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Tesich's screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates' direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.
Our wistful hero is Dave (played by Dennis Christopher, above), a teen-age Don Quixote who fancies himself an Italian cyclist—affecting an accent, belting out arias from La Traviata as he pedals about the neighborhood. His three buddies—the tough guy (Dennis Quaid), the humorist (Daniel Stern), the squirt (Jackie Earle Haley)—hang out with Dave at the old swimming hole and rail at a life that has made them members of a certified American underclass: townies in a college town. Dave's father (Paul Dooley) is a befuddled used-car salesman, his mother (Barbara Barrie) a benign Skylab drifting along, and as the only two consequential adults in the film, they have decided to impersonate Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca imitating Fibber McGee and Molly. But it works! By God, they are funny! Yates is somehow able to take us into farce, to the brink of burleseque, then yank us back in the very next moment, to the most evocative and poignant scenes. Why, such talent for juxtaposing bombast and subtlety has previously only revealed itself in Earl Weaver's managing of the Baltimore Orioles.
Don't be fooled. The film's sense of humor and its exciting race sequences notwithstanding, this is not a jock American Graffiti. It is much more profound than that. If there is one drama Breaking Away recalls, it is Picnic, which has the same tender appreciation of everyday people. The moment in Breaking Away in which Dave admits to his coed sweetheart (Robyn Douglass—and how talented and lovely she is!) that he is not an Italian exchange student contains as much of youth and innocence and broken promises as the whole spectrum of genre movies. A scene of Dave and his father that deals with aspiration, with the American dream, is almost as sweet. And nothing is more sadly touching than when Mike, the tough kid, the failed high school quarterback, watches the college scholarship hotshots practice, and then cries out in frustration that in all his life he will never be anything but a guy named Mike. He screams at the collegians, taunts them, fights them, challenges them for daring to encroach on his swimming hole and attempts to swim a race against an arrogant fraternity man named Rod (Hart Bochner), who is a member of the IU swim team.
There is a priceless moment here. When Mike hits his head on a rock but refuses to quit, Rod, to our surprise, looks at him with an expression of genuine concern and understanding. It's just an instant, but it is the sort of detail that makes the film so full, so warm. Thereafter Rod is not really a villain. We may envy him that he is so handsome, that he drives a Mercedes, that he gets all the girls. But we—and the townies—don't hate him. That's important. A crucial thing about America is that we have never hated winners, only been jealous of them—the Rockefellers and the Yankees alike. And that is why there are no moats around our ball fields. Breaking Away comprehends that sort of thing about our manner of striving and competing. I hope Bobby Knight goes to see it. I hope Jack Tatum goes. I hope Jimmy Connors goes and takes John McEnroe when he goes back to see it again. I hope Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson go together.
August 5, 1979
I'm sure that Tesich and Yates didn't set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here. It is a story that convinces you that life will be better yet for your kids, and that maybe you, too, can kiss the prettiest girl, win a race and really get to know somebody you love. If we, as a people, are capable of making a movie like Breaking Away, then surely we can whip inflation, too. The President said to say something nice about America. Well, the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.