The Winter Olympics Go to the Movies

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The Winter Olympics Go to the Movies

by: Gil Coombe | .
Groove Korea | .
published: April 07, 2018
One of the annoying things about the Winter Olympics is that they tend to happen during winter, that season best suited to lying on the couch, warming bourbon in one hand, TV remote in the other, crisps packets and candy wrappers littered around you, desiccated husks of shame and self-loathing. So what better way to get amped up for the upcoming PyeongChang Games than to seek out some of the best cinematic entertainment on offer about the magic of bundling up in hundreds of layers of clothing and falling down a hill gracefully, or wearing next to nothing and spinning around in circles? (Yes, you may argue that actually watching the events themselves may achieve this purpose, but to you I offer this response: Hush now.)
 
Now, I personally haven’t seen a lot of Winter Olympics movies, so it is difficult for me to make a definitive list. So I turned to the wonderful Rotten Tomatoes website, which takes a whole bunch of reviewers’ nuanced, expertly analyzed reactions to movies, turns them into a simple Yay” or “Nay” metric and then derives a percentage for the number of reviews that are positive about an individual movie. While this is methodologically dubious, it does provide a simple metric for ranking films, and it has also powered countless angry discussion threads on movie discussion boards all over the internet, so who am I to argue. Below is a list of ten films related to the Winter Olympics (some tenuously so, it must be said) ranked in order of their Tomatometer score. Bon appetit!
 
 
I, Tonya (2017)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Figure skating
 
Synopsis: So, the 90s were a weird time – it was the point where the news slowly started to morph into entertainment, so “celebrity” criminals and their lurid exploits really became a fixture of social discourse – think OJ Simpson, the Menendez brothers, Jeffrey Dahmer, Lorena Bobbitt… Add to that list Tonya Harding, the U.S. figure skating champion in 1991 and 1994 who was suspected of being party to an attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan was struck in the leg with a baton after a practice session by a man hired by Harding’s ex-husband and her bodyguard, in the hope that the injury would put her out of the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics and clear the way for Harding to take gold. Harding denied knowing that the attack was to take place, and in fact both women ended up going to the Winter Olympics, with Kerrigan finishing 2nd and Harding a disappointing 8th. Upon her return, Harding pleaded guilty to “conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers” and received a minor punishment, though the United States Figure Skating Association in its own investigation concluded that she had known about the attack beforehand and banned her for life. 
 
And now we finally get to see this story dramatized in a flashy, fourth-wall breaking way, with rising star Margot Robbie deglamming to play the gobby, somewhat trashy Harding with able support from the great character actress Alison Janney (Juno, Margaret)  as Harding’s mother, and Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Winter Soldier) as her husband. The structure and tone is far removed from your typical lifetime story, with Scorsesian freeze frames, pop hits, and dueling narrators. Some have subsequently accused it of being “glib”; others appreciate that it tries something different.
 
Watch It When: You need your fix of trashy 90s real-life crime, but you’ve already seen The People vs. OJ Simpson. Or if you want proof that figure skating can in fact be interesting if it puts its mind to it.
 
Key Quote: “America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate. I mean, come on! What kind of frigging person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: “Robbie’s take on Harding—more of a spiritual embodiment than a mannerism-obsessed impression—never feels like any kind of anti-vanity stunt.” A.A. Dowd, The AV Club
 
CUT: “I, Tonya makes no attempt to hide its eagerness for the audience’s approval. That’s both apt and more than a little disingenuous, since the hasty, fickle judgment of the masses is one of the movie’s chief satirical targets.” Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times
 
 
Miracle (2004)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Hockey
 
Synopsis: The true story of the “Miracle on Ice”, in which the underdog American team (average age = 21) beat the heavily favored Soviet team in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics before going on to win the gold medal in the final. The movie is centered around the head coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), who is tasked with making a team of strictly amateur players competitive against the Soviets, who had won the last four Olympic golds, and other European countries. Though professional players were banned from playing in the Winter Olympics (and would remain so until 1988), the Soviets used players who were given positions within various companies but who trained full-time as athletes as a way to get around the ban. Throw in the Cold War tensions between the two countries, and you have a perfect David vs. Goliath story with socio-political undertones.
 
Watch It When: You find yourself needing to celebrate that plucky little underdog America who has had a tough time of it for centuries now but who every now and then will win an important sporting contest to remind them that dreams can come true and that they should keep plugging along and eventually big things will happen for them. You can do it, America!
 
Key Quote: “I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: “In many ways, Miracle belongs to Kurt Russell, who is wonderful as Herb Brooks, the tough coach who eliminated failure as an option for the athletes.” Claudia Puig, USA Today
 
CUT: “[The director’s] lack of faith that the audience will pick up on the not-so-subtle implications of the Olympic conflict extends to a saccharine voiceover at the end, when, in case viewers didn’t get it, Russell intones forgettable pieties about believing in the dream.” Ann Hornaday, Washington Post
 
 
Eddie the Eagle (2016)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Ski jumping
 
Synopsis: Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards was once the best ski jumper in all of the United Kingdom, heading to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics full of confidence and bravado. It should be noted, however, that he was at the time the only ski jumper in the U.K., and in fact the U.K. had not competed in ski jumping for 60 years. He finished dead last in both the 70 m and the 90 m jumps, though he did set the British record with one of this jumps. Seven years later, he set a world stunt record for jumping over 10 cars and 6 buses.
 
And so a legend was born. Eddie the Eagle is a heavily fictionalized account of Edwards’ Calgary adventure – for example, Hugh Jackman’s character, coach Bronson Peary, doesn’t exist in real life, and is basically an amalgam of all the coaches Edwards’ had during his career, and Edwards (played by Kingsman star Taron Egerton) wasn’t quite as hopeless on skis as the film makes out, being close to making the downhill team for the 1984 Winter Olympics. The man himself has stated that the film is probably about 5 percent true. Still, if we wanted the truth, we would be reading Wikipedia, wouldn’t we? All you need to know is that Eddie the Eagle is the proud precursor to Eric the Eel at the 2000 Summer Olympics and Ali Dia in the English Premier League.
 
Watch It When: You want proof that incompetence needn’t be an obstacle in becoming famous; all you need is a dream and a stunning disregard for your own physical safety. (Or be born rich and beautiful, though this is harder.)
 
Key Quote: “For as long as I can remember it has been my ambition to become an Olympian. I just needed to find the right sport.”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: “The new inspirational sports comedy Eddie the Eagle tries to have it both ways with its main subject, simultaneously ridiculing and ennobling him. And, amazingly, it mostly works.” Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine
 
CUT: “Although Mr. Edwards’s last-place finishes in Calgary made him something of a sensation, a symbol of do-it-yourself persistence, this film doesn’t seem to trust the inherent likability of his story. The director, Dexter Fletcher, and the writers, Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton, load it up with tropes that actually make it less endearing.” Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times
 
 
Downhill Racer (1969)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Um, downhill skiing. It’s right there in the title.
 
Synopsis: The fictional story of David Chappellet (played by Robert Redford just as he was bursting onto the scene – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in the same year) and the path to his shot at Olympic glory in the downhill skiing competition. A relatively straightforward plot tracks the ups and downs of the journey, including rivalries with other competitors and conflict with the U.S. team coach, played by the estimable (and greatly missed) Gene Hackman. 
 
Watch It When: You want your fix of old-school Hollywood charisma and a peek at one of the most interesting directors of the late 60s, early 70s in Michael Ritchie (Prime Cut, Smile).
 
Key Quote: “You never had any real education, did you? All you ever had were your skis… and that’s not enough.”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: “…a portrait of a man that is so complete, and so tragic, that Downhill Racer becomes the best movie ever made about sports — without really being about sports at all.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
 
CUT: “It is not a great film, but it is an exceedingly interesting and provocative one that illustrates both the elasticity of Hollywood cinema at the end of the ’60s and the daring of young filmmakers with bright futures ahead of them.” James Kendrick, Q Network Film Desk
 
 
Cool Runnings (1993)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Bobsled
 
Synopsis: A staple of the VHS years, this comedy is very loosely based on the true story of the first Jamaican bobsleigh team, who were a particular novelty at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary being a tropical nation trying their hand at a winter sport. All of the characters are given different names compared to their real-life counterparts, and great license is taken in the casting of the great John Candy as their coach. But still, the general gist is the same: a bunch of amateurs take on an insular sporting event and gain respect for their efforts, even if they were never going to be close to the podium. It’s the type of movie for which the phrase “fish out of water” was invented.
 
Watch It When: You, like most adults, feel like an imposter, going about your business without truly understanding what you are doing. You put on a face of calm and authority, but underneath it all, you wonder when you are going to be found out. But you do your best, because what else are you going to do?
 
Key Quote: “Always remember, your bones will not break in a bobsled. No, no, no. They shatter.”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: “Cool Runnings is a charming tale of determined underdogs, with plenty of laughs, moments of real tension, and five engaging performances.” Marc Lee, The Telegraph
 
CUT: “They’ve pulled down the Berlin Wall. The Palestinians and the Israelis are talking peace. But they’re still making comedies like Cool Runnings, in which cartoonish natives scratch their heads and try to make sense of the white world.” Desson Howe, Washington Post
 
 
Blades of Glory (2007)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Figure skating
 
Synopsis: The highest concept of any film on this list, Blades of Glory takes two fierce figure skating rivals Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder, Napolean Dynamite himself) who are banned from the men’s singles competition for life for an incident at the “2002 World Winter Sport Games” too silly to recount here and details their decision to team up as the first same-sex team in the pairs competition to get around the ban. Throw in former husband-and-wife team Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as a brother-and-sister rival pairing, The Office alum Jenna Fischer as their younger sister tasked with seducing and thus destroying the tenuous alliance between Michaels and MacElroy, and various other silly hijinks, and you have what promises to be one of the more fun Olympics… I mean, World Winter Sports Games entries.
 
Watch It When: You are in the mood for dumb laughs, but YouTube videos of drunk people falling into bodies of water just aren’t cutting it anymore.
 
Key Quote: “I started working with that Ukrainian skater, you know, the one that looks like Elvis?? And I moved to the Ukraine, and it was cold, and everyone had guns and smelled like soup.”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: “The movie… is blissfully silly, triumphantly tasteless and improbably hilarious.” Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal
 
CUT: “This is all a load of fluff. It’s predictable. It’s ridiculous. It has not the slimmest tether to reality, and it features one crotch joke too many (or maybe 10).” Amy Biancolli, Houston Chronicle
 
 
The Cutting Edge (1992)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Figure skating
 
Synopsis: Now we start getting into dubious territory, as the choices start to dry up dramatically. And what we are left with are the likes of this, a romantic comedy starring noted charisma machines D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly as, respectively, a washed-up hockey player and a talented figure skater who team up to compete in the pairs figure skating competition at the 1992 Winter Olympics. She is demanding and spoiled, he is cynical and out of his element. There is no way they could ever succeed or fall in love, not opposites like these! Unless….
 
I have never seen this movie and I will never see this movie, but of the people who have seen this movie, six out of ten seem to have enjoyed it well enough, so who am I to judge? For film fans, of most interest would be the fact that this is noted writer-turned-director Tony Gilroy’s first credited film. Having gone on to write the likes of Rogue One and the first four Bourne movies and to direct Michael Clayton and The Bourne Legacy, it is interesting that he would start it all with a piece of throwaway fluff like this. Still, everyone has to start somewhere. 
 
Watch It When: You are in the mood for a horror and download this because you were mislead by its title.
 
Key Quote: “I swear, you let me down and it’ll take them a month to count the blade marks up your back.”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: Yes, it’s Dirty Dancing on ice skates (and no, you can’t quote me on that).” Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
 
CUT: “Plotting like this is probably outlined on floppy discs so guys like first-time screenwriter Tony Gilroy can slip one into their computer, provide a semi-original backdrop (in this case, Olympic ice skating), drop in some wisecracks and — voila! — another cookie-cutter Hollywood movie.” Chris Hicks, Deseret News
 
 
Mystery, Alaska (1999)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 38%
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Hockey
 
Synopsis: Okay, this is a stretch. You see, this film does not involve the Olympics at all. It doesn’t even involve any form of organized competition. Instead, it is the tale of a fictional town in Alaska (go on, guess its name!) that has a long-standing Saturday game of four-on-four ice hockey played among the members of the town, with older members being regularly replaced by up and coming young players. Their tradition makes the national spotlight when featured in Sports Illustrated and an exhibition game is set up with the New York Rangers in the small town. Russell Crowe, hot off LA Confidential and The Insider plays one of the said older members of the team who finds his position under threat as politics and romantic entanglements threaten to derail preparations for the big game. What follows is thus your typical underdog vs. behemoth story, just with an Australian rugby league fan pretending to be an American hockey player.
 
Watch It When: You are curious to see what Russell Crowe looks like when he is trying to be a charming, gentle family man, maybe his greatest acting stretch of all time.
 
Key Quote: “I play hockey and I fornicate, because those are the two most fun things to do in cold weather.”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: “Conveys some of the thrill and ferocity of ice hockey while skillfully folding together multiple personal dramas.” Stephen Holden, New York Times
 
CUT: “The cast applies itself with such conviction, that one wishes the result had been worth the effort.” Wendy R. Weinstein, Film Journal International
 
 
D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 21%
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Hockey
 
Synopsis: So, I know 21 percent is not incredibly high when it comes to critical acceptance, but you’ll be happy to know what this is the most well-received of the three Mighty Ducks movies – I wouldn’t foist any old rubbish on you. In the sequel to the surprisingly successful first film (15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), Emilio Estevez returns as Gordon Bombay, the guy who was forced to coach a Pee-Wee hockey team as part of his community service and who is now on the verge of breaking into the National Hockey league. Cue a serious injury and an invitation to take Team USA to the Junior Goodwill Games as coach. Guess who are in that team? You guessed it, most of the original Mighty Ducks! What are the odds?
 
Again, no, this is not strictly an Olympics movie, but it features a competition on ice, so it will do. This will work best as a dose of nostalgia for those who grew up in the 1990s when these kinds of kids movies were all the rage (Heavyweights, The Sandlot, Little Giants, Angels in the Outfield, The Big Green), as opposed to those looking for an insightful analysis of the corrosive effect of competition on social cohesion among young adolescents and Emilio Estevez. Maybe the one progressive move the film makes is that the rival team here is not Russia, as you might have expected. Instead, it is Iceland who proves to be the big bad. Finally, a movie not cowed by Iceland’s nefarious, malicious influence on the world.
 
Watch It When: You have kids who are not particularly discerning.
 
Key Quote: “And when the wind blows hard and the sky is black – Ducks fly together!”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: “The movie is a great representation of how much can be accomplished through working together as a team. Because it lacks foul language and other objectionable elements, D2 The Mighty Ducks is a commendable movie.” Movieguide
 
CUT: “This isn’t so much a sequel as a virtual remake of the first film, with the same plot, the same characters and the same gung-ho all-American spirit and endless navel gazing over the ethics of winning at all costs.” Paul Merrill, Empire
 
 
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)
 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: –
 
Olympic Sport Featured: Ski jumping
 
Synopsis: How could you possibly resist a title like that? Particularly when this documentary is directed by the king of idiosyncrasy, Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man). Made for German TV, this is a document of then-world champion ski jumper Walter Steiner, who is also a woodcarver by trade. Slow motion replays of crashes, Steiner discussing the conflict between fear and thrill (or maybe they are two sides of the same coin?) and tales about ravens, Herzog appearing on camera to narrate the goings-on… it all adds up to another Herzog look at an obsessive personality and trying to understand what it is that drives us to do the crazy things we do.
 
Watch It When: When you want to lord your knowledge of cinema over all those people who watched the other films on this list. Or when you are busy, because it is only 45 minutes long. (It is available on YouTube.)
 
Key Quote: “50,000 people waiting to see me crash”
 
The Critics Speak: 
 
MATCH: “The things that separate it from other films are the personality of the ski jumper himself and Mr. Herzog’s extraordinary slow-motion footage of the ski jumper at work. You have the feeling that on any one of these jumps. Mr. Steiner is going to take off and never again set foot on earth. At least, not alive.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times
 
CUT: “The ‘weirdness’ of Walter Steiner — like that of Kaspar Hauser or Aguirre — is successfully presented as that of an exotic zoo animal, encouraging sympathy without permitting empathy or any other sort of direct identification.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, Monthly Film Bulletin
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