The 10 Best Movies About the Olympics
February 9, 2018 marks the beginning of the 2018 Winter Olympics, where scores of extraordinary athletes, the best of the best sent out of almost every country on Earth, will get the opportunity to reach for their dreams. I believe that one of the main reasons most of us tune into the Olympics -- when we don't care one iota about the mechanics of the two-man luge or the politics of curling during the preceding four years -- is to vicariously experience the high stakes and dramatics of the whole affair.
The Olympics, summer or winter, is a profoundly cinematic experience, a series of climactic explosions culminating from years of sheer will and ambition, wrapped around an inspirational message of unity. For proof, just listen to the rousing fanfare of each game, or watch the many Olympic-themed commercials that "borrow" directly from the aesthetics of underdog sports dramas to sell us cars and sodas. Therefore it shouldn't come as a surprise for film history to be filled with equally inspirational and heart-pounding films based on The Olympics. As a way to celebrate the Winter Games and hopefully put you into the winter gaming spirit, we thought it might be fun to list the 10 best Olympic movies. My goal was to pick a variety of different genres and tones in order to capture the versatility of stories that can be inspired by the games. Ready... set... go!
A Jesse Owens biopic that's understandably centered on Owens' famous appearance and performance during the political hot potato known as the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Race seizes the opportunity for clever word play. As with pretty much all other American sports films with an athlete of color in its center, and that takes place sometime before the mid-60s (or as Chris Rock put it, when "your state decided to get its shit together"), director Stephen Hopkins' film doesn't shy away from the systemic racism that undercut Owens' career, but couldn't stop his ascent into the history books. Hopkins adds an extra layer to the race issue by showing the American committee deciding to send Owens to the games as a protest against Hitler's racist policies, while not shying away from the rampant prejudice that America also perpetrated at the time. At almost two and a half hours, Race is a bit bloated, and it would have been a better idea for the filmmakers to focus more on the Olympic games, the meat of the story, rather than more traditional biopic elements about Owens' upbringing, but Stephan James' passionate performance as Owens and the film's level-headed approach to its emotionally hefty subject matter makes it a worthy watch.
Cool Runnings (1993)
You don't get a clearer conflict and higher stakes within the inspirational underdog sports movie sub-genre than Cool Runnings, a heartwarming (despite the cold setting) comedy based on the real-life Jamaican bobsledding team that valiantly competed during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. The emotional bread and butter of these films rely on the distance between the protagonists' ambition and the contrast of the situation, and it's hard to find a wider chasm than the one between the icy coldness of the Winter Olympics and the sweltering heat of Jamaica. Of course, that doesn't stop a team of plucky Jamaicans, led by a headstrong coach played by John Candy, in his last great performance before his tragic passing, from participating in a game previously dominated by pompous Swiss bullies. (Side note: The Swiss were apparently fully supportive of the Jamaican team in real life, but a Disney movie needs a clear villain.) The comedy elements somehow keep finding new ways of cracking jokes about how cold the Jamaicans are in Calgary, and the tear-jerking finale, based on the real outcome of the team's final run, is one of the most inspirational endings to any sports movie.
Sometimes a satisfying and inspirational Olympics movie based on real events is to stick as close to what actually happened as possible. In the case of the legendary "Miracle on Ice" hockey game between the USA and the Soviet Union during the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Calgary, New York, a period when the rivalry between the countries reached a fever pitch as the cold war was on the brink of significantly heating up, all director Gavin O'Connor needed to score a goal with Miracle, the Disney dramatization of the earth-shattering game and the spectacular USA team that made it happen, was to stick to as many of the actual events as possible. The heavily dramatic conflict, struggle, excitement were all there in the real story to begin with. The US team wasn't given a cold day in hell of a chance of beating the super Russians, but their no-nonsense and laser-focused coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell in one of his most infectiously charged performances of his career) meticulously molded the winning formula. O'Connor stuck as close to the actual details of the story as possible, even using word-by-word recreations of the televised comments during the game. The film's grainy and handheld aesthetic captures the late '70s mood, and the explosive climax is incredibly stirring, despite the fact that we know the outcome.
At some point in their career, every film buff will have to face the challenge of stripping the groundbreaking technical achievements of Leni "Hitler was by BFF but I totes had no idea about the Holocaust" Riefenstahl's filmography from the abhorrent politics it shamelessly glorified. It's not an easy task, since the impressive cinematic techniques that significantly expanded the narrative confines of documentary filmmaking are directly connected with promoting Hitler's supermensch delusions about the physical and mental superiority of the Aryan race. For proof, take a look at the impressive but off-putting over the top glorification of the white athletic body during the operatic opening sequence of Olympia, Riefenstahl's iconic documentary that captured the 1936 Berlin Games. Using precise and clever superimposition techniques, Riefenstahl makes a direct connection between then current white athletes and gods depicted on ancient statues. The sequence is a marvel of editing, and should provide a significant reference point for those wanting to study that part of the cinematic art form. As a whole, the educational value of Olympia trumps its value as a stimulating bit of entertainment these days, but its cultural impact is hard to deny.
Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
Legendary Japanese director Kon Ichikawa's three-hour-long epic capturing of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Games still might be the most engaging and captivating Olympic documentary ever produced, despite the fact that advancing audio-visual technology during the 50+ years since its release allowed filmmakers to get closer to the action than ever before. Ichikawa was a master in using music and poignant imagery to make soul-wrecking points (for proof, check out his woefully underrated masterpiece, The Burmese Harp), and he uses his trademark style to its full extent in Tokyo Olympiad. The use of slow-motion images of the athletes giving their all and then some, every move and pulsation of each muscle a joint effort to reach the finish line, the sublime orchestra score underlining the vital importance of each second, there has never been a more astute way to insert the audience into the complex mental state of the competitor. Watch Olympia as a cultural artifact, but enjoy Tokyo Olympiad as an entertaining and winning masterpiece
Blades of Glory (2007)
Will Ferrell and Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder's goofy ice skating comedy extracts a lot of mileage out of the gay panic jokes surrounding the premise of a couple of straight male skaters being forced to compete as a pairs team in order to have any chance at Olympic gold, an aspect that will undoubtedly date the film's comedic value as time goes on. However, just like Ferrell's string of sports-themed comedies of the time, Blades of Glory makes fun of the sport without outright mocking it. The focus of the comedy is on the over-the-top narcissism and shrillness of the protagonists, not on the Olympics or the sport of figure skating itself. In that sense, the film manages to extract a surprising amount of inspiration while never losing sight of its absurdist tone. Blades of Glory is the Olympic film for those looking to kick back some late night, open up a bottle from a six-pack or light up a bowl (in states where recreational weed is legal) and have a breezy, rollicking good time.
A terrific, '60s-style political thriller and director Steven Spielberg's most morally charged and divisive film to date, Munich might come across as an odd outlier in this list, since the focus of the story is on the vindictive aftermath following the horrific terrorist attack that viciously murdered Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics, an event known as "Black September." I could have picked Kevin McDonald's methodically detailed 1999 documentary about the attack, One Day in September, but Munich's staunch rebuttal of the "eye for an eye" philosophy, as the Israeli agents tasked with killing those responsible gradually lose more pieces of their humanity as they're plunged in an endless cycle of violence, has a direct thematic correlation to the Olympic Games' unifying message and strong stance against armed conflict.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
The Best Picture winner of its year, Chariots of Fire is the textbook definition of the gorgeous-but-stuffy drama that's catnip for Oscar voters. Yet its entirely too self-satisfied and semi-smug tonal approach to the inspirational real-life story of two runners, the devout Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and headstrong Jewish athlete Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), defying odds and prejudice in order to compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics, takes great strength out of its tenderly realized central performances and director Hugh Hudson's precise command of the thematic link between the athletes' dedication to their sport and their personal struggles. The famous Vangelis store has lost a lot of its staying power due to having been parodied to death, but the sights of the athletes running across the beach in slow motion, accompanied by this score, still makes one's heart skip a beat.
During the late '90s, Hollywood pulled another Deep Impact/Armageddon and released two back-to-back films about the dedicated American long distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who left us far too early at age 24.The 1998 film Without Limits definitely has its merits as a satisfactory biopic, but 1997's Prefontaine gets a slight edge due to stronger performances from its cast, and the natural fly-on-the-wall direction by Steve James, a rare dramatic feature effort from the great documentary director who gave us the game-changing Hoop Dreams. Jared Leto is fine in the title role, and the intimate performances by Ed O'Neill (In a rare dramatic performance) and R. Lee "numbnuts" Ermey provide ample support.
Personal Best (1982)
After getting the silver medal in the competing Prefontaine biopics, Without Limits director Robert Towne gets his due with a shout out to his directorial debut, a romantic drama about an ambitious runner (Mariel Hemingway) getting stuck in a love triangle between a lesbian fellow athlete (Patrice Donnelly) and a swimmer (Kenny Moore) while competing to qualify for the 1980 Olympics. Personal Best deserves recognition as a unique Olympics film for various reasons. It's a rare example of the romance genre tied to the Olympics, a narrative focus on the national qualifying events instead of the international games, and a fairly progressive-for-its-time depiction of a gay relationship. Towne must have intimately studied some of the best Olympic documentary films in order to capture a docudrama approach that manages to balance the film's straight genre ambitions.