Friday, September 16, 2016

Breaking Away (1979)

USA, 101 minutes
Director: Peter Yates
Writer: Steve Tesich
Photography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Editor: Cynthia Scheider
Cast: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie, Paul Dooley, Robyn Douglass, Hart Bochner

Breaking Away is an old movie now, going on 40 years, and it didn't have much that was new even at the time it came out. Still, it has real charm and that helps it overcome the obvious deficiencies, including those that come of just being so old. It's a sports movie, basically, an aspirational story set in a context of simmering class resentments, and there were plenty of contemporary movies like it: Rocky, Slap Shot, and The Bad News Bears (with an even younger Jackie Earle Haley) come immediately to mind, with Hoosiers still ahead.

In Breaking Away, the specific sport is bicycle racing and the specific social conflict is between privileged students at Indiana University and "townies" from Bloomington, Indiana, lower-class locals who are shunned, mocked, and called "cutters" by the students because of the town's origins as a quarrying site. Stop me if you've heard this before. It's likely no coincidence a lot of this came along in the late '70s—a response to real economic trends, as it was the time, we know now, when income growth in the US definitively stalled at the lower ends of the scale and began to fall back, even as it went on to soar at the higher ends. In a year or two it would be known as "trickle-down economics," and then "Reaganomics." It's the Rust Belt when it was just beginning to show signs of rust. As such, it still has an amazing amount of poignancy.

Those hard times are represented here specifically by the stone quarries of Bloomington, which were still producing in the '70s, but not enough to maintain previous levels of employment. There's a brooding sense that the end of the industry is nigh: things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc. Now, all that the abandoned quarries are good for is swimming in the summer, which both townies and students do, stoking further resentment. Into this hotbed of familiar Midwestern troubles comes a most peculiar figure: Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher), who is 19, and dreams of becoming an Italian bicycle racer. It's all gone a little too far, in fact, and he can seem unhinged.

It's hard to know how to take him, even though he's obviously the hero. Looked at one way, he's having some kind of breakdown. He speaks Italian, carries on with high spirits, behaves as he imagines European competitive bicyclists do, and trains ceaselessly, We learn he has had health problems in the past, and is now recovering—just in time to realize he has little or no future. Christopher's performance is nicely divided between the exuberant Italian biker he wants to be and the glum Midwesterner he turns into when encountering setbacks.

Director Peter Yates keeps the style within bounds then being pioneered and defined by TV sitcoms such as Mary Tyler Moore. The humor can turn broad and farcical, and sometimes it's funny, but the undertow is always toward human warmth, for better or worse. I must say it certainly can err on the side of feel-good. Dave's mother, for example (Barbara Barrie, Barney Miller's wife on TV), is just slightly perhaps too winsome, as a sad housewife looking for a reason to smile.

Paul Dooley (a staple in any number of minor Robert Altman pictures) plays Dave's dad as a sour salt-of-the-earth used car salesman who is equally afraid his son has lost his mind or become gay. He gets a few good scenes, as one where he faints and has to be taken to a hospital when Dave offers a customer a refund. He just keeps mumbling, "Refund! Refund!" Dave's dad also has the nicest narrative arc, as a skeptic of Dave who comes around and then comes through as his father. Hanky time, everybody.

Breaking Away has a nice ensemble cast and the core of it is Dave's group of pals, who are all a year out of high school with no idea what they're doing or where they're headed. They include Dennis Quaid (The Big Easy, Far From Heaven), Daniel Stern (Diner, Home Alone), and Jackie Earle Haley, who made sports movies like this and The Bad News Bears before showing up much later in places like Watchmen and Shutter Island. They are four guys singing the Stooges' song: another year for me and you, another year with nothin' to do. "The only thing I'm afraid of is wastin' the rest of my life with you guys," one of them says at one point in a snit. "I thought that was the whole plan," says another. "That we were going to waste the rest of our lives together."

Breaking Away, for all its breakdowns into sentiment, is more than anything a solid sports movie, and we know sports movies are already at least partly cheesy. This has a couple of exciting bicycle races as climax and a nicely managed rooting interest in the outcomes. The terms are so straightforward you can almost diagram them: these kids are lost, with no opportunities they believe in and nowhere to go. But the competition enables them to focus their energies and possibly find meaning, etc. Maybe their lives will be better if they can win for once, etc. The first half lays out the situation, and the second half features the races, with all kinds of nice sports ups and downs and ins and outs, including rousing Italian light classical music, a chance for heroics all around, and especially displays of character in the crucible good and bad. You know how it ends even before it starts, but somehow you never mind looking again. Even if you have to wince at some of the jokes and situations. What the hell—it's a long time ago!


  1. I don't remember much ab this movie, good or bad, but I can see how it might have gained considerable resonance as a period piece.

  2. Not sure why I'm only just noticing this. The one year in my life that I lived outside of the SF Bay Area, I lived in Bloomington, Indiana. So I have no idea if this movie is any good, but I had fun spotting landmarks.