Running up the score: 9 based-on-a-true-story sports movies that sacrifice truth in the name of inspiration
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1. The Blind Side (2009)
The news that some fact-based sports movies embellish some truths while obscuring others will shock no one; after all, filmmakers are granted a certain degree of dramatic license. However, there are times when that license should be revoked. In the runaway hit The Blind Side, loosely based on Michael Lewis’ book, future Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) is presented as something akin to a sad, dumb, oversized puppy in need of adoption. While it’s true that Oher was the son of a poor, crack-addicted mother in Memphis and that the Tuohy family (played in the film by Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw) gave him a home as a teenager and helped him develop, the details are so grossly exaggerated that Oher (with co-author Don Yaeger) dedicated space in his own book, I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness To The Blind Side And Beyond, to clearing things up. Oher’s biggest gripe: Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, did not, in fact, teach him how to block, much less by storming the field in the middle of practice and talking about his teammates as if they were family members in need of protection. That scene doesn’t pass the smell test, but the film’s popularity makes it a legend Oher will have a hard time living down.
2. We Are Marshall (2006)
In 1970, a plane crash took the lives of the entire Marshall University football team, its coaching staff, and several prominent boosters, 75 people in all. The film concerns the effort to process this immense loss in the small community of Huntington, West Virginia and rebuilding the football program from scratch. According to Rick Nolte, who co-authored the book The Marshall Story, some of the tweaks to the story were small and understandable, like Matthew McConaughey’s overly demonstrative depiction of a “low-key” coach, and others were more significant, like an outrageous scene where a throng of students rallies in front of the university president’s office to convince committee members to go through with the football season. (Nolte says there wasn’t any question they would do so.) The other big scene, where McConaughey’s coach gives a stirring speech to his players at the cemetery before their big game against Xavier? Didn’t happen. So other than the two most memorable scenes in the movie—and countless other minor errors—We Are Marshall gets it right.
3. Glory Road (2006)
After his Remember The Titans was a hit, producer Jerry Bruckheimer went on a brief tear of fact-based inspirational sports movies that incorporated the truth only insofar as it overlapped with the Bruckheimer formula. The 2006 flop Glory Road follows Texas Western’s improbable run through the 1966 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, which was significant for being the first all-black starting five ever to win the championship. The film gets the broad strokes right—there is a game called basketball and Texas Western did indeed defeat Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky starting five for the championship—but the rest is just, well, broad. Glory Road suggests the people in El Paso, Texas had barely heard of black people before incoming coach Don Haskins started actively recruiting them; in fact, Texas Western (now UTEP) enjoys the distinction of being the first Southern college to integrate its athletic program. No doubt the Texas Western players experienced appalling racism wherever they travelled in ’66—Kentucky fans draped Confederate flags in the rafters, for one—but the film gooses it up all the same.
4. Fear Strikes Out (1957)
In baseball parlance, outfielder Jimmy Piersall was what’s called a “colorful” player. He was known to fly into spontaneous rages at umpires, opponents, and teammates, and when he wasn’t howling at the world, Piersall would stage loony stunts: running the bases backwards, wearing a wig at the plate, and generally trying to surprise and entertain the crowd. Some of Piersall’s wackiness was clinical in origin; he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and spent time in institutions early in his career. And some of it was just Piersall playing to the legend that he helped create. In 1955, Piersall and co-writer Al Hirshberg released the book Fear Strikes Out, which talked about Piersall’s tenuous grip on sanity and his relationship with his overbearing father. When the book was made into a movie (staring the decidedly un-Piersall-like Anthony Perkins), the filmmakers emphasized the daddy issues and downplayed the reality of the mental illness that ran in Piersall’s family, because it’s easier to dramatize a father and son learning to respect each other than it is to show the slow process of stabilizing genetically inherited brain abnormalities. Piersall later disowned the film for showing him as too volatile and too focused on his pop, but that didn’t stop him from acting adorably nuts for the purposes of self-promotion.
5&6. The Babe Ruth Story (1948)/The Babe (1992)
Babe Ruth himself bears part of the blame for the exaggerations and fudging in the two biggest big-screen versions of his life story. During the height of his career with the New York Yankees, the “sultan of swat” was perfectly willing to go on the radio or appear in movies as a lovable, oversized kid, while the unwritten rules of journalism at the time meant that sportswriters ignored the Babe’s drinking, womanizing, and bullying, instead talked up his prowess as a home-run hitter. So in 1948’s The Babe Ruth Story—rushed into production while the real Ruth was on his deathbed—William Bendix plays Ruth as a dim-witted clown with a saintly side who could practically heal children and animals with his touch. The 1992 biopic The Babe purports to offer more of the unvarnished truth, but though Ruth was rotund, he was never as heavy as John Goodman, and while the movie does deal with the slugger’s voracious appetites and oft-surly demeanor, it underplays his value as a day-to-day player. Instead, The Babe makes it look like Ruth was a walking disaster who only pulled it together for big moments: the called shot, the three-home-run day at the end of his career, etc. And even those moments are exaggerated in the movie, because even in a warts-and-all telling of the Ruth story, it’s hard to resist the legend.
7. Secretariat (2010)
You know those teams who lead their divisions wire-to-wire, storm through the playoffs, win the championship, and then say in post-season interviews, “Everyone doubted us all year”? That’s Secretariat. The movie version of the beloved horse’s run through the Triple Crown emphasizes Secretariat’s racing quirks and the hard time that owner Penny Chenery had in convincing the good-ol’-boy horse-racing establishment that a woman could nurture a champion. Except that Secretariat was a known champion well before he raced in the Kentucky Derby, and so was Chenery. The year before Secretariat’s Triple Crown, Chenery and trainer Lucien Laurin won the Derby and the Belmont with the horse Riva Ridge; and that same year, Secretariat was named “American Horse Of The Year.” No doubt Chenery faced obstacles in her racing career, and no doubt Secretariat had handicaps that Laurin had to work around. But this is hardly an underdog-makes-good story. It’s more a frontrunner-wins-as-expected story.
8. The Rookie (2002)
Disney’s Dennis Quaid-starring The Rookie tells the story of Jim Morris, a high-school science teacher and baseball coach who had missed out on a major-league career due to injuries but makes a promise to the team he coaches to try out for the majors. After overcoming hardships such as being a high-school science teacher and old, Morris achieves the unthinkable and makes it on to a big-league roster. The problem is that as inspirational as the film purports to be—the trailer calls it “the most incredible true story in baseball history,” apparently disregarding Jackie Robinson or Jim Abbott, the one-handed pitcher who once threw a no-hitter—Morris’ actual career, statistically speaking, was underwhelming at best. Once he did reach the majors, it was a short-lived stint as a middle reliever for the last-place Tampa Bay Devil Rays. From September 1999 through 2000, Morris appeared in 21 games, throwing 15 innings in which he recorded 13 hits, 13 strikeouts, and finished with a 4.80 ERA. Tampa Bay released Morris after the 2000 season and he signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers, who released him after spring training in 2001. Morris, however, hasn’t let this get him down: In addition to the movie’s success, he’s now a motivational speaker who commands as much as $15,000 for corporate appearances.
9. Rudy (1993)
The story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, the most famous benchwarmer in college-football history, is a classic underdog tale of a young man overcoming every possible obstacle to realize his dream. Ruettiger’s path from factory worker to Notre Dame football player is captured in the 1993 movie Rudy, starring Sean Astin in the title role. For the most part, the movie stays faithful to real events: His teammates really did carry him off the field on their shoulders, one of only two times that’s happened in the team’s history. But the film diverges from truth at the critical moment when Rudy gets into the game for his big play. The movie portrays Coach Dan Devine (Chelcie Ross) as Rudy’s adversary, reluctant to dress Rudy for the final game and put him in for the final plays, even after Rudy’s teammates take a stand in his defense. It makes the climactic moment when Rudy gets in and sacks the opponent’s quarterback all the more inspirational. But, in reality, it was Coach Devine’s idea to dress Rudy and put him in for the final plays and not, as the movie suggests, the result of something akin to a player-led mutiny. Devine, who is close friends with Ruettiger, details the story in his autobiography Simply Devine: Memoirs Of A Hall Of Fame Coach, saying, “I told Angelo [Pizzo, screenwriter] I would do anything to help Rudy, including being the heavy. I didn’t realize that I would be such a heavy heavy.” Like The Rookie’s Jim Morris, Ruettiger has parlayed this fame into a career as a motivational speaker.