29th Jan2014

Ten Best: Sports Biopics

by Phil Wheat


To celebrate the DVD and Blu-ray release of Rush this week, we’ve taken a look back at sports in the movies to bring you the Ten Best Sports Biopics

Brian’s Song (1971)

A weepie isn’t something you always associate with a sports biopic, but Brian’s Song does such an extraordinary job in portraying two teammates and friends. American football players Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers butt heads when they both compete for a starting spot on the Chicago Bears. They ultimately become buddies, yet their friendship is cut short when Brian is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Try to hold back the tears at the end of the film … just try.

Raging Bull (1980)

The argument continues to rage amongst scholars and everyday moviegoers as to what director Martin Scorsese’s best film actually is, but any conversation about it has to include his knockout boxing biopic Raging Bull. This perfectly realized portrait of Jake LaMotta is a compelling story of how greed and rage can destroy a talented athlete. Robert DeNiro’s portrayal is absolutely searing and fiercely committed; he even gained a whopping 60 pounds to play LaMotta in the character’s self-destructive later years.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Harold Abrahams is running to overcome the anti-Semitic hatred that was hurled at him as he grew up. Eric Liddell is running to bring glory to the God he adores. But both are running for their beloved Great Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games. No matter where you’re from, you can’t help but root for these athletes when the film starts running in slow-motion and the ultra-synthesized Vangelis score cues up.

A League of Their Own (1992)

When the men go away, the women come out to play in A League of Their Own. Rather than letting Major League Baseball shut down when American men were shipped overseas to fight World War II, the team owners decided to keep the league afloat by enlisting female players. The movie takes a close look at the eclectic bunch of players that formed the Rockford Peaches. Funny but also highly dramatic, this unforgettable sports flick features winning performances by Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna.

Miracle (2004)

Arguably the greatest underdog story in the past half-century of sport, the United States’ 1980 Olympic hockey victory over the four-time reigning champion Soviet Union team would have only been possible in a movie at the time. Yet it happened in reality, shocking the Cold War culture and continuing to inspire awe through the movie Miracle. In spite of the film’s title, the victory was hardly an act of sheer luck. It was the result of Coach Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell, and his tough but highly motivational leadership that united a ragtag group of selfish collegiate hockey players to successfully bring down the sport’s Goliath.

Cinderella Man (2005)

Another sports biopic by Rush director Ron Howard, Cinderella Man is the rousing story of a man fighting not just another boxer in the ring but also for his family’s survival in the Great Depression. Russell Crowe’s James Braddock gives up boxing after breaking his hand in a match, but the cruel economic conditions of the 1930s make it nearly impossible for him to support his family through honest labour. Yet after a lucky break from his long-time manager, Braddock ends up living a real life Cinderella story as he manages to claw his way to the top of the heavyweight boxing world. Howard’s on-point direction combined with Crowe’s pitch-perfect performance makes Cinderella Man quite a stirring experience.

Invictus (2009)

You don’t need to know anything about rugby to be wowed by Invictus. The film details not only Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary unifying powers over South Africa but also his country’s improbable Rugby World Cup victory in 1995. Seeking a way to present a strong image of his country as they hosted the competition, Morgan Freeman’s Mandela decides South Africa needs to win to inspire patriotism. He instils the confidence necessary to pull off the extraordinary win in rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), who rallies his team around Mandela’s bravery and courage so that they might find their own.

The Fighter (2010)

David O. Russell’s Oscar winning boxing film The Fighter actually tells the story of two prize fighters. The first, Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward, is a welterweight fighter trying to escape his current status as a “stepping stone” to provide easy wins to other boxers. The second, Christian Bale’s Dicky Eklund, is Micky’s half-brother and trainer whose crack addiction hampers his abilities. Prompted by his new girlfriend Charlene (an incredibly charismatic Amy Adams), Micky starts taking his career more seriously by distancing himself from his family – but ultimately discovers he needs their support to succeed. Inspiring, moving, and funny, you’d be a fool not to be in The Fighter’s corner.

Moneyball (2011)

While Moneyball is explicitly about the sport of baseball, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is more about the minutiae of “inside baseball.” The film shows how Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics, builds his 2003 team based on the then radical notion of valuing statistics over the qualitative insights of his scouting team. At the same time, though, the genius film explores the character of Beane as well. Pitt brilliantly, but subtly, illuminates various spectres of Beane’s past, including an ill-fated professional baseball career and a failed marriage.

Rush (2013)

The root of all conflict in athletics is competition, and Ron Howard’s Rush brings moviegoers’ attentions to one of the biggest clashes of personalities in sports history. Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt, a relaxed lothario, and Daniel Brühl’s Niki Lauda, an uptight mentalist, could not be more opposite personalities on the Formula 1 circuit. But the desire of each to beat the other drives them to success, even in the face of crippling setbacks. Peter Morgan’s script does not identify a clear hero or villain in their relationship, allowing us to focus on the intensity of Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry and how it emblematises much of honest human quarrelling.

Rush is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD now, courtesy of StudioCanal.

One Response to “Ten Best: Sports Biopics”

  • Nice list, but RUDY is one of my favorite films. For anyone who has ever been repeatedly told they “can’t” do something, this is the movie for them. One man who willed his dream to come true, despite over-whelming odds. Great story, great performances, great score and a climax that delivers.

    I thought A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN was a good movie, but it’s a fictionalized account of the real female professional baseball league. I’m not sure it qualifies as a “biopic”.

    But, good list. More people should see CINDERELLA MAN.