5. Friday Night lights
4. The Cincinnati Kid
3. The Natural
2. The Hustler
5. Friday Night Lights: I’m gonna miss the heat. I’m gonna miss the lights.
American football works well on screen, the staccato rhythms and technicalities of the game act as rounds of increasing tension, the variations of influential personnel offer us heroes, one after another. But there’s an inescapable hint of tragedy about the college game. The sadness of fleeting glory is exposed, the way in which the past, present and future of a young man is stripped down to one moment in one game; one decision, one twist, one turn; the significance of precision, the option of success. Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) asks his team to be no less that ‘perfect’, no live nowhere but within the moment of victory. This is a spare, unsentimental film that discards the guts and glory myths that clog other movies to shed light on the stirring practicalities of focus, collaboration and belief. Peter Berg’s film allows us to see two rarely shared secrets: the fragility of the athlete and the possibility.
4. The Cincinnati Kid: You’re good, kid, but as long as I’m around, you’re only second best.
This short, sharp film is always on point. Ruthlessly minimal, harshly cut and sucking the air out of the room, it has the mark of its original director, Peckinpah, all over it. Anxiety and corruption are on show here, performing a lap of honour, winners always. Sure, there’s skill in poker, but mostly its nerve, and the ability to deny compromise, and the encroaching comforts of weakness. The film revolves around a classic opposition, the young pretender versus the old master. The confidence and killer touch of Stoner (Steve McQueen) against the patient, responsive guile of Howard (Edward G Robinson). Not only does Stoner have to contend with the pressures of the game but he must also display the moral fortitude to deny the fixing of small time gangsters. Stoner must deliver a kind of justice through victory. He comes to represent something he cares nothing about. So, the stakes are high but it’s not about the money – money is the tool, the language with which the gambler converses with the defeat that drives him. It’s about being the best and not being the best. As Shooter (Karl Morden) says, it ‘Gets down to what it’s all about, doesn’t it? Making the wrong move at the right time.’
3. The Natural: You know, I believe we have two lives. How… what do you mean? The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.
Barry Levinson’s film is a magical experience that hits you in the heart, just when you’re expecting a blow to the gut. It’s a sucker punch, but a most welcome one. The Natural is about the purity of sport, the essential wonder and secular enchantment that it inspires. Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) returns to the game he showed so much promise in as a youth, baseball. His resurfacing in middle-age is mysterious, the circumstances of his disappearance curious and the manner of his farewell mesmerising. Once a pitcher, Redford is now a slugger. Each smash of the ball rips further some internal wound. With each homerun he seems closer to death. But he plays on, ruining himself, etching his shape into legend. The pressures on him mount as the homers dry up. Something inside Hobbs is delicate, ready to break. He lives for a dream that won’t die, a dream that seems to be destroying him. This burning ambition seems to be transcendence of a kind, the natural desire to surpass and inspire The momentous climax of the film erupts into a blaze of glory, Hobbs hits a ball into the floodlights – with the sky aflame, he rounds the bases, untouchable and alive, still.
2. The Hustler: I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I’m the best there is. And even if you beat me, I’m still the best.
Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) plays the game. Because that’s all there is. He’s found utopia there and he can’t let go. Man, he’s hooked. But the boy is good. In The Hustler the glowing worlds of the tables, strung together like galaxies in the dim space of the pool halls, show that a game can be so much more. The essential interaction between opponents, the complicated psychological affronts and rebuffs that take place, indicate that a game is not a microcosm of life, but that life is a macrocosm of some kind of game. Everything is laid bare for Eddie. His off-table existence is nothing more than a means back to it. He forces himself to believe that it’s not about knocking the balls in – that it’s about leaving nothing on the table when you’re finished, about having nothing left to leave. Eddie comes full circle, standing in the same spot, having reached it from another direction, another life. There’s some difference between feeling invincible and being invincible and that difference is Eddie in the first five minutes of the film and Eddie in the last five minutes of the film. In the end, he could play for ever and never lose. However, we’re left with the feeling that, in all that time, nor could he win. When you have nothing to lose, winning is no longer the point.
1 Rocky: Keep hittin’em in the ribs ya see? Don’t let that bastard breathe!
Sitting perfectly between two other greats, John Huston’s Fat City and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Stalllone’s film is arguably the most riveting film of the 70s. Balboa is some creation, a definite and masochistic release for the hesitations of fiction. He embodies an ethic that’s satisfying and hard not to value: fight for it and you’ll get what you want—or at least reach a place where you can accept losing it because you’ve given every last inch of yourself to the task. Something about Rocky connects. Out of luck, punched out and dirty, Balboa takes his chance and proves that ambition is hollow, that potential is nothing but the loser’s success, that desperate failure is more meaningful than victory – and, finally, that taking the hits and moving forward is everything. Stallone’s charismatic embodiment of Balboa is something special, his interpretation of the bottom rung always proud. Boxing may be a crude and simplistic manner to find out what you’re made of, but it’s also pretty clear-cut if you’re willing to accept its harsh terms. Rocky is about fighting for a chance, a future and the right to be. Truth is brutal, no less so than a swinging right to the jaw. Can you take it on the chin? Can you get through it and count yourself in? You can be certain that the film will last forever, its message so directly expressed through a remarkable, undeniable hero.