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Game Film, No. 7: Rudy

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Breaking down the X’s and O’s of the top 10 football movies of all time. At number seven: The Hoosiers of football. Unless, of course, you hate it.

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Judging by what I’ve read on the internet — always a suspect way to begin a theory — I think most people would either have Rudy as a favorite to be number one on this list, or hope it would be left off entirely, or both. So I realize there’s a good chance this selection will piss everybody off. And that’s okay. I don’t mind being the bad guy. Someone’s got to do it. You need people like me.

Say what you will about Rudy, it’s solid filmmaking -- involving, and emotionally evocative -- just not the all-time classic some make it out to be. It’s also unapologetically melodramatic and cloying, but not the worthless piece of trash others make it out to be. It belongs on this list, but not at the top of it. The simple truth is I think all those who think Rudy is the greatest football movie of all time are overrating it, and all those who think it just plain sucks are underrating it. Much like politics -- and everything else discussed on the internet -- I believe people are way too far to either extreme on this film.

Well, I’m here as the voice of moderation. A Rudy-centrist.

That’s mainly because I see both sides of the argument. I rank these movies primarily based on two categories — my level of enjoyment watching them, and my feeling about how well-made they are artistically. Those feelings don’t always dove tail. For instance, I enjoyed re-watching last week’s selection more, but favored this from a purely filmmaking point of view.

Whether you’re looking for pros or cons to Rudy, there are plenty to find. Pro: It was written and directed by the same duo behind the universally-beloved basketball classic Hoosiers, Angelo Pizzo and David Ansbaugh, college roommates who planned their sports movie careers over a bong. Con: Many of the events and characters in the movie were distorted, exaggerated, or just plain made up. That’s why they always say “based on a true story.”

But we’re here to rate the film, not explain why some of it was changed -- though that must at least be addressed. Besides, we already know why facts are changed in Hollywood adaptations — to make a better movie. The movie is very popular for a reason. And make no mistake, it is a beloved film among the general public, which is why it’s usually ranked number one on lists of football movies. It even made AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Cheers” list of the most inspiring movies of the 20th century. So why do some people hate it?

Let’s break it all down. But first, the trailer:

MVP

Sorry, Rudy. The MVP is not Sean Astin as the title character. Why? Mainly, all the whining. Like, Luke Skywalker-level whining. You can only hear a guy talk about how much he wants to go to Notre Dame so many times before you kind of want to tell him to shut the hell up. Rudy is a pretty one-note character, who’s journey works more due of its sheer unlikeliness and the obstacles he overcomes to reach his goal than the likability of his character.

No, the MVP of this film is Charles S. Dutton as Fortune. In a film that is too sappy by half (if not more), Dutton provides the shot of reality and harsh truth the film -- and Rudy’s character -- needs. It doesn’t hurt that upon meeting Rudy he sees him the way of us do — as an annoying and delusional who won’t leave us alone.

And of course, he gives one of the great inspirational sports -- if not movie speeches ever.

That speech is written well, but it’s Dutton’s delivery that really sells it.

And no, Fortune wasn’t based on a real person, so it’s all made up. As previously mentioned, a lot of stuff in the movie is fictional. In this case, Rudy says Fortune was a composite character made up of all of the people who encouraged him to follow his dreams. You may not like that, but it’s pretty typical of any film you’ve seen based on a true story. Look deeply into any, and you find similar characters, scenes, etc. added to maximize the drama.

Key role players

Since Dutton is my upset choice of MVP, that leaves the title character for this section. Sean Astin as Rudy is the Russell Wilson of football movie characters -- displaying Hobbit-like stature, and undeniably annoying qualities, but also a surprising effectiveness that demands some level of respect. I could do without the constant whining (”I wanna go to Notre Dame!”), but Astin didn’t write the script -- he’s just asked to make it work, and carry the movie. And he does. Even if you don’t think so, the women and non-football fans in your life probably do. Rudy is a crowd-pleaser and it’s hard not to credit the guy in just about every scene for that.

Besides Dutton, Rudy is backed by several friends (though no family members):

  • Rudy’s best friend and biggest supporter, Pete, played by Christopher Reed. He was the only one who got Rudy’s love of Notre Dame and believed in him. And it’s his likability and death, which gives Rudy the character the motivation to go to Notre Dame, and Rudy the film the heart it needs to allow us to forgive its cheesiness. For those who can, that is.
  • Mitch Rouse as Jim, Rudy’s practice squad teammate, who could’ve gotten a scholarship to a Big Ten school, but came to Notre Dame as a legacy due to pressure from his all-American father. He’s there when Rudy needs him most, and gives a persuasive performance of the guy who motivates the otherwise tireless Rudy.
  • Robert Prosky as Father Callahan, the priest who takes Rudy under his wing, and helps him get into Notre Dame, but only after giving him some good advice and some lessons about the value of hard work and determination.

The opponent

The secret to Rudy’s resonance is the entire world is his opponent. Besides the three characters listed above, everyone’s happy to tell him “No,” “Don’t do that,” “You’re not good enough,” or “Your dream is stupid.”

A brief list:

  • His (fictional) brother Frank is the main culprit, constantly telling him he can’t play football, he’ll never go to college (let alone Notre Dame), and not even believing Rudy when he says he’s on the practice squad.
  • To a lesser extent, his dad (Ned Beatty), who loves him, but doesn’t believe in him or support him at all. He literally comes to the bus station when Rudy is leaving for South Bend simply to tell him that following your dreams is a bad idea. (Thanks, Pop!) Of course, this isn’t even close to true either.
  • His other brother, Johnny, who starts dating his girlfriend (Lili Taylor) after he leaves for South Bend. He almost certainly didn’t exist either.
  • His coaches. Ara Parseghian doesn’t appear interested in Rudy, but at least gives him a chance — though it’s really more is assistant, Coach Yonto (the very underrated Ron Dean). Dan Devine is played by sports movie vet Chelcie Ross (Major League, The Express) as a heel (which he apparently agreed to, then regretted it) -- the coach who won’t even let poor Rudy suit up despite his predecessor’s promise to do so.

Rookie of the year

The most competitive this category has been. I seriously doubt we’ll have anyone who went on to a longer, more successful career than Jon Favreau. He makes his second appearance on this list — very different than his first — as D-Bob, who at first only tutors Rudy as long as it benefits him (in an uncomfortable scenario where Rudy is his creepy wingman), but eventually becomes his friend. This was only Favreau’s second credit — of 68 and counting (not too mention 25 producing, and 21 directing) — so it was his big break.

An asterisk: Had it not been for Favreau, Vince Vaughn could’ve easily taken this category. This was just his eighth credit (also out of 68), and three years before Swingers made him a star. But if it hadn’t been for Favreau and Vaughn meeting on set, there would have been no Swingers (at least not as we know it), or the many films which followed. More to the point, Favreau has the bigger role, but Vaughn has a nice arc as a jerk who hates Rudy for having the passion for the game he lacks, then comes to respect him, and ultimately goes out of his way to make Rudy’s moment in the sun possible.

Key moment

Even if you hate this movie, I think we can all agree Dutton’s aforementioned speech to Rudy when he’s ready to quit the team before his final game is unquestionably the best moment in it.

That being said...

The highlights

  • The soundtrack. I haven’t mentioned the music much in this series, because it’s rarely played much of a role. Here, as in the creative team’s previous sports movie hit, Hoosiers, the music is a key player in why the movie works. Composed by Hollywood legend, Jerry Goldsmith, the soundtrack works to inspire us and get us emotional in all the right spots. And when it swells toward the end, when Rudy finally gets his shot, the goosebumps swell -- even if its against your will. Hell, just play this, and tell me it doesn’t get your blood pumping. The music is so good it literally wallpapers over all of Rudy’s problems.

The lowlight

Rudy’s insufferable impersonation of Knute Rockne’s famous speech.

And keep in mind, he does this twice. One as an even more annoying child version of himself.

Football scenes

The football action is pretty realistic. Sure, it’s a hobbit playing football, but he’s laughed at by every person he tells about his dream, so it’s not supposed to come off as sensible. Also, most of the football we see Rudy involved in is from practice, so there’s not a very high bar to clear. The game footage before the climactic scene is fairly limited, but passes the sniff test.

As for that climatic scene, what we see actually happened for the most part. Let’s break down the film.

Life:

Art:

Besides the fact he didn’t get a solo sack, as portrayed in the film, it’s pretty accurate. Though some like to claim he was offsides. You can even buy t-shirts proclaiming it as fact:

Unfortunately for the haters, he actually wasn’t.

Realism

If you’ve been paying attention, you know it wasn’t necessarily a TRUE story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unrealistic. In fact, most of the stuff made up for the film is most believable. It’s not fantastical to imagine Rudy had an older brother who picked on him. Or that he had an African-American mentor who helped him out. The most unbelievable elements of Rudy’s story are actually the true facts.

Best line

Does a speech qualify? Probably not. So I’ll go with this instead:

Father Cavanaugh: “In 35 years of I’ve of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two hard and incontrovertible facts: There is a God, and I’m not him.”

Up next

Another movie your mom/sister/girlfriend probably likes. Hint: That’s because some think it’s more rom-com than football movie. They may have a point.

Poll

Rudy is...

This poll is closed

  • 43%
    Grossly under-ranked on this list
    (32 votes)
  • 23%
    Grossly over-ranked on this list
    (17 votes)
  • 32%
    Gross
    (24 votes)
73 votes total Vote Now

Previous posts:
Honorable/dishonorable mentions
No. 10: The Replacements
No. 9: All The Right Moves
No. 8: Any Given Sunday