LATE IN NORTH DALLAS FORTY, the 1979 film adaptation of former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent’s roman à clef, actor Mac Davis is washing down unprescribed painkillers with Budweiser while recounting a community-service visit with a YMCA team: “I give ‘em my usual bullshit,” he tells a teammate played by Nick Nolte. “Y’know, football, character development … all that crap.”
Davis might as well have been summing up the modern sports movie. In real life, sports are about passion, hatred, winning, and above all, suspense. We huddle in bars, grip the steering wheel too tight, or explode with tension on the couch because we don’t know how it will end. But when sports go to the multiplex, every team is one of destiny. The credit “based on a true story” is code for “you know exactly what will happen.” The competition at hand will be either “more than just a game” or the thing that teaches us “there’s more to life than games.” And above all, the underdog will prevail—or at least lose with dignity intact. One reason so many people objected to the movie version of Seabiscuit is that they wanted something worthy of the top-of-the-line cast, with the same texture and insights as the book. Me, I expected a sepia Karate Kid, though I’m not sure if the Ralph Macchio role was filled by Tobey Maguire or the horse.
But wouldn’t it be nice to be surprised once in a while? With three Texas-bred sports movies currently making headlines around Hollywood, I’m hoping it might happen. First up, with an October theatrical release, is Friday Night Lights. Fourteen years after it was originally published, H. G. Bissinger’s bittersweet best-seller about high school football in Odessa finally hits the big