The Big Game. What that means may differ from person to person, but on Sunday, it’s beautifully/brutally defined by Super Bowl LV. But the crawl to the winning score may not be your cup of tea. If you’re yearning for human (dramatic, redemptive, elevating) stories about people struggling to be the best — or at least, make the team — movies about sports are a go-to.
What follows are a handful of films about sports and the people behind them but not so much about the action on the field.
More of a conspiracy thriller than a sports movie, Concussion makes medical research enthralling. The film stars Will Smith as Doctor Bennet Omalu, the man who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The condition can be caused by repeated concussions and is, therefore, a dire threat to professional football and its massive profits.
Smith is believable as the Nigerian-born Omalu who takes on the National Football League. This is an impressive feat for Smith, who normally seems bigger than the screen. The whole film revolves around Omalu’s earnest effort to protect some of the most indestructible people on Earth. Drama, rated PG-13, 123 minutes, Amazon Prime
DRAFT DAY (2014)
The patron saint of late-20th century sports movies took an off-the-field role in this clever, but by-the-numbers sports melodrama. Like a real-world great athlete, Kevin Costner aged out of roles in films like Bull Durham (1988) or Tin Cup (1996), but he is just the right age to play Sonny Weaver Jr., a conflicted general manager in Draft Day. As the name suggests, the film is a behind-the-scenes look at an NFL team as it navigates the most important front office day in the football world’s calendar and picks the young players who will anchor its roster.
This gruffer, crankier version of Costner is under siege for the entirety of the film. His co-workers, the sports media, his boss, and even his mother are all coming after him, demanding that he fix their lives and salvage the Cleveland Browns football team while he’s at it. Weaver, though, has a plan. Or, at least, he has the beginnings of a plan to select his favorite college football player and rebuild Cleveland’s assets.
In Bull Durham, Costner played an aging baseball player who uses his wisdom to get the girl and break the home-run record. As Sonny Weaver Jr., Costner never straps on the cleats but he employs the same indefatigable attitude to get what he wants, even though the game is played in conference rooms and on phone calls as opposed to on the field. Drama, rated PG-13, 110 minutes, IMDb TV
Back in the early 2000s, it was an impressive feat when the manager of the Oakland Athletics Major League Baseball club used statistics to compose a winning lineup at a bargain bin price. It’s almost as impressive that director Bennett Walsh turned the story of Billy Beane’s “quants” into a stellar feature film. Who knew that data analysis made for great movies?
Occasionally, the action in Moneyball drifts onto the field, but the most memorable moments are on the phone or in the board room. That’s where Brad Pitt, as Beane, fights an ongoing battle both with his baseball operations team and with his own past failures. Beane rebuilds his team based on the numbers, but his goals are far more personal. He wants to reprogram the entire sport so that no one else is treated the way that he once was as an emerging young talent.
Thanks to sharp, metaphor-filled dialog, Moneyball is a quick, enjoyable watch, even though it’s filled with flashbacks and discussions of paradigm shifts. Pitt is perfectly cast as a sour and haunted former athlete with a wry sense of humor and enough confidence to challenge the entire sport. He’s complemented by Walsh’s stylish direction. Static screens of batting averages in a spreadsheet never looked so good. Drama, rated PG-13, 133 minutes, Netflix