By Richard Roeper
AS THE 2018 Winter Olympics played out in Pyeongchang last month, NBC introduced the audience to dozens of athletes via well-crafted background packages that often played like mini-movies.
Of course, the most memorable stories emerge organically from the games. And those are the stories that often inspire full-length movies.
In order of preference, here’s my top five Olympics movies and a handful of honorable mentions.
It became one of the most memorable scenes in motion picture history: that glorious, time-capsule, slow-motion sequence of joyous British runners, circa 1924, racing along the beach to the sound of Vangelis.
It also became one of the most parodied movie moments ever, but even that is a compliment to the lasting impact of the scene.
Chariots of Fire took us by surprise in 1981. Few of us knew the story of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a devout Christian who gave all credit for his success to the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jew who overcame anti-Semitism both subtle and overt in his quest for Olympic glory.
Director Hugh Hudson and screenwriter Colin Welland did a masterful job of sticking relatively closely to the historical facts while delivering a crowd-pleasing sports story with two complex but quite likable heroes to root for.
The film won Oscars for best picture, best screenplay, best costume design and yes, best score.
The title of Daniel Gordon’s 30 for 30 documentary refers to Canadian Ben Johnson’s almost unbelievable world-record time in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
Turns out it WAS unbelievable. Or at least unattainable without an illegal boost.
Three days after the Olympics, Johnson was stripped of his medal after testing positive for steroids, and the gold was awarded to the American Carl Lewis.
But that doesn’t necessarily make Johnson the evil, cheating villain and Lewis the lovable hero. Gordon’s film takes a look at the steroid epidemic of the 1980s, noting six of the eight runners in that Olympic final have been implicated for PED use (though some continue to maintain they were always clean). Gordon conducted extensive interviews with Lewis and Johnson and shows us two talented, competitive, complicated, flawed, very human individuals.
To this day, the all-amateur, US men’s hockey team’s upset of the vaunted professionals from the Soviet Union in 1980 just might be the most stunning upset in Olympics history.
With a perfectly cast Kurt Russell as coach Herb Brooks and a group of little-known actors playing the then unknown players, an unapologetically heart-tugging screenplay from Eric Guggenheim and Mike Rich, and sure-handed direction from Gavin O’Connor, Miracle follows the underdog-sports movie blueprint with little deviation — and that’s why it’s so dang enjoyable.
When real life has given you all the ingredients for a classic sports film, why mess with the recipe?
A brilliant film about an American tragedy.
The meticulous and greatly talented Bennett Miller specializes in fictional films that bend and shape the facts, but still carry essential truths, e.g., Capote and Moneyball. He does it again with Foxcatcher, which tells the story of the eccentric and ultimately criminally paranoid John E. du Pont (played by the uncanny Steve Carell), his obsession with wrestling and his recruitment of the Olympic gold medal wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo).
Although much of Foxcatcher takes place at the training facility on Du Pont’s property and not the Olympics per se, there are some sobering insights about the quest for Olympic glory — and the reality that for athletes in non-glamour sports such as wrestling, winning the gold meant almost nothing once the games were over. The reason Mark Schultz was so quick to accept Du Pont’s help and allow himself to be financially and emotionally seduced by the wealthy oddball was he had little else going for him.
True, this is not a sports movie, but for better or worse, from the triumph of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games to the US boycott of the 1980 Summer Games to discrimination against athletes of various ethnicities and faiths, the Olympics have always been about much more than the pure competition.
Steven Spielberg’s searing historical epic starts with the unspeakable tragedy at the 1972 Summer Olympics, when a Palestinian terrorist group killed 11 Israeli Olympic team members and a German police officer.
Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Academy Award winner for Forrest Gump) and starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Omar Metwally, Geoffrey Rush, and Mathieu Kassovitz, Munich is one of Spielberg’s most controversial films. It’s a rough, violent, debate-provoking interpretation of Israel’s alleged secret and vast campaign to exact revenge on the surviving members of the Palestinian terrorist group.
Munich might not be the movie you want to watch when hoping for a glorious Olympics that’s all about the athletes and the spirit of competition. A film such as Miracle might be the way to go.
But it’s one of the best films of any kind of the 21st century, and if you haven’t seen it, perhaps you can place it in your queue for future viewing.
Honorable mentions: I, Tonya, Cool Runnings, One Day in September, Personal Best, and Downhill Racer. — Chicago Sun-Times/Andrews McMeel Syndication