Rocky Bleier is one of the few pro athletes to have been wounded in Vietnam: on Aug. 20, 1969 he was shot in his left thigh and had his right fool nearly blown off. That he came back to become a stalwart starting running back on the world champion Steelers is a lovely story, especially because Bleier had been no great shakes before he'd been shot. It's instructive, for example, that the actor who plays Bleier in the TV movie Fighting Back (ABC, Dec. 7, 9 p.m. EST) is a bigger man than the football player.
Good art should be larger than life, but, alas, the dimensions of the film are not as outsize relatively as those of Robert Urich, the leading man in Fighting Back. Bleier's movie story is not without its merits, especially in the early going, and altogether it is better than most TV films, if perhaps not quite so diverting as a run-of-the-mill Steelers-Oilers game. A significant part of Fighting Back's failings may be attributed to the conventions and convictions that shackle all television movies and that probably diminish sports films more than others.
The problem with sports movies on network TV is that the medium is controlled by an antipodal alliance of male executives and female viewers. While most men spend a great many of their waking moments declaring that they don't understand women, there is a corporal's guard of American males—all in the bountiful employ of the networks—who are confident that they do understand women. It's an article of faith with these other-sex savants that distaff viewers, who constitute a majority of the TV audience, will watch only what they can "identify with" as women.
Also, the networks, and those males who fathom females for the networks, still assume that spectator sports are of interest only to males and that, ipso facto, women will tune away from a sports story no matter how entertaining it may be. That's probably why an inordinate percentage of TV sports movies are primarily about overcoming illness or not doing so well in the Big Game versus death. That way, sports films also can qualify as affliction pictures, or what's known in the trade as "afflicts pix."
December 8, 1980
True, perhaps the best TV sports movie ever made was an affliction picture, Brian's Song. Unfortunately, what has been selectively forgotten is that Brian's Song had little to do with women; it was about two men, Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, who loved and cared for one another. And yet a great many viewers—of both sexes—adored the film.
I bring this up because Fighting Back heads naturally and affectionately in the same direction, depicting the tender bond between Bleier and Steeler owner Art Rooney. Rooney is beloved by all, but he was cursed for decades by the ineptness of his stumblebum team. The parallels between Bleier's striving for success and Rooney's dreams for his Steelers are obvious and real; would that Fighting Back had followed this line of least resistance to a spontaneous conclusion.
Regrettably, just as the relationship between these two men is unfolding, the midpoint of the film approaches—a time when the other networks introduce new competition. It appears that one of the ABC executives who understand women decided it was imperative to force-feed a love interest into Fighting Back at this point so that women would start identifying and stop thinking about changing channels. In the role of weaker-sex identifier, Aleta (Bonnie Bedelia) makes a great to-do about not kissing Bleier on their first date. It's all terribly silly, and the movie deteriorates from there.
This is all the sadder because Rooney is played by Art Carney. What inspired casting! But Carney is wasted; he's never permitted to rise above stock Irishman and stock father figure. Worse, the intrusive romantic story line obscures Bleier himself. Once again we must go through that shopworn jock version of the big-breasted blonde syndrome: Can't someone love me for my well-developed sensitivity? Rocky, as the script has it, falls for Aleta largely because she doesn't know what number he wears and, thus, obviously cares for him as a real person.
They do share a very trenchant and touching scene near the end of the film, just before the '75 Super Bowl, but unfortunately this exchange damages the whole movie with its revelation. Aleta congratulates Rocky on his courage, his never-say-die spirit. But no, he says, all along it was insecurity that motivated him. He had no confidence that he could do anything but play football, so he kept trying out of fear.
This is a fascinating disclosure, making Bleier a much more interesting and sympathetic figure. But it all comes totally without warning. Until this moment, there has been nothing to suggest that Bleier is anything but a singleminded, if pleasant, gridnaut. You can't have a whodunit without a murder; neither can you have a why did he do it without letting us know early on that something's up psychologically. How much more involved we would have been with Bleier if, for example, he'd revealed these doubts to Rooney at the beginning of the story. As it is, we have no preparation for the unveiling of the very essence of the man. Consequently, we are not only disappointed that the movie has gone flat because of its trite love story but also cheated because the producers have given us much less than the best of what there was.
Once again a network has failed its viewers, female and male, by mistakenly thinking they need to identify with a story. What an audience really needs is to care about a film and its characters.