42 Movie: Why Hollywood Loves Sports Stories (Even Though It Never Does Them Quite Right)

It is no coincidence that the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42: The True Story of An American Legend, opens in April, the same month that major league baseball returns; it is what is called synergy. The trailer for 42 – a textbook example of contemporary Hollywood trailer technique – is a good place to prompt some examination of the relationship between Hollywood and sports stories. From this trailer I see what I would expect from a Hollywood telling of the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball: pounding musical motif, memorable phrases (“You will remember me.”), a distinctly contemporary, digital rendering of 1947 Brooklyn, and even a Jay-Z track (I love Jay-Z; the track kills in the trailer). To clarify, the trailer is filled to the brim with markers of the contemporary Hollywood style, which above all aim to support a clear, unambiguous narrative that appeals to a mass audience.

Thus, it seems like the story of Jackie Robinson is perfect for Hollywood. 42 brings to mind recent successful true stories about race, sport, and overcoming the odds (see The Blind Side or Remember the Titans). Furthermore, Hollywood has had some success in creating successful films that revolve around baseball in particular: consider The Natural, Field of Dreams, or Bull Durham. But even though Hollywood loves sports stories, all of these stories are about something more than just the game that is played on the field. As the trailer for 42 emphasizes, the narrative is about more than sport; Jackie Robinson was as, or more, important for shattering racial barriers than baseball records. So, while it would seem that both Hollywood and sports are a great match, the narrative drives behind each are not equal.

The love of sport is on one level fundamentally driven by the human love of narrative. Narrative is established by the attribution of causes to effects, and to the tracking of those causes and effects through time. In baseball, for example, each play, each pitch, each swing of the bat is a narrative event that can have a multiple of outcomes. Each outcome determines the next outcome and so on and so forth. The excitement in sports is partly the tension between the unknown of each event and the familiarity of players and teams and what we know. Underdog stories are popular in sport because they embody the extreme of this interplay between known limitations and the seemingly infinite possibilities of each event. Hollywood knows this on a certain level, which is why underdog stories – like The Rookie or Miracle – continue to get made.

But remember earlier when I said that Hollywood’s MO is also clear, unambiguous narratives? Since the kind of scripted cinema that is most popular in Hollywood tends to eliminate the uncertainty of the unexpected outcome (e.g. you know the “good guy” will win), this creates a site of tension between Hollywood and sport narratives. Thus, Hollywood most often relies on “true stories” and the kind of sports stories where the character athletes are direct causal agents on and off the field. The pleasure is in the retelling of a great game or celebration of a milestone. Another common outcome is that the sports drama takes backseat to off the field drama. Bull Durham is most notable as a romance. The Hollywood sports film is a film that ideally appeals to more than just fans of the game. Sport becomes the framing device for a story that is ultimately about more than sport.

What might an alternative sport film look like? A film that was interested in the mechanics and actual athleticism of the game might lack the kind of narrative with clear causal agents that Hollywood audiences prefer. Not all sport is clear and some sports have so many simultaneous actions going on that not even fans can agree what is driving the outcomes.

Perhaps something like the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait might offer an alternative. It follows Zinedine Zidane, the famous French footballer (soccer for N. Americans), during a single game in 2005 between Real Madrid and Villareal. Seventeen cameras track his movements. The aesthetic pleasure is as much in watching Zidane’s play style and movements on the field. Or perhaps NFL Films might offer another possibility. The in-house film production company films all NFL games and is skilled at drawing out the inherent drama of the game itself. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz has written, they can “make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.” While the film techniques NFL Films utilizes (slow motion, multiple camera angles, strong musical scores) are not uncommon in Hollywood, the techniques are used to highlight the sport itself.

However, even a weekend NFL telecast or MLB game shows that Hollywood style has become a huge part of the game. Hollywood has colonized sport and more and more sport coverage follows the dictum to find the strongest narrative. That means focusing on athletes as narrative agents, both in crafting an on-field narrative or an off-field one, signing big contracts and dating beautiful women. Look at the attention focused on trade deadlines and drafts and we can see the narratives being crafted by P.R. agents and broadcasters. Both sports and movies are now essential parts of the global media machine. It makes sense that they would borrow from each other in their quest to expand their reach. Perhaps, in a reversal of the idea that Hollywood loves sports stories, I might suggest in the end that, equally, sports have learned from Hollywood and that sports loves Hollywood.