I really only decided to check this out to finally hear the origin of that now-immortal line “Win one for the Gipper.” I was also curious to see what Ronald Reagan was like as an actor, since I knew him best as object of scorn and derision by bands I enjoy like the Dead Kennedys (for his other famous role, of course, as president). Football fans are likely to be overcome with revulsion if I admit that I actually had no idea that this was based on a real person until about thirty seconds in when it began telling me it was made with the cooperation of Rockne’s widow and estate. Oops. Well, that tells you how much I’ve attention I pay to college football, I guess. Heck, the only college I attended just won some title or championship or something and I didn’t know until I was driving back from out of state and saw a billboard announcing it. So, let that be the place I come from when reviewing a movie about the “father of the forward pass” and all that.
Anyway, Knute Rockne (as an adult played by Pat O’Brien) is a Norwegian immigrant who works hard to acquire enough financial support for himself to enter college. He chooses the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, bringing his childhood love of football with him. He trains in chemistry and is encouraged by administrators to pursue this field over something like football, but he chooses his love instead. He carries Notre Dame through lengthy winning streaks, many, many wins and a number of famous players–including George “The Gipper” Gipp (Ronald Reagan) and the “Four Horsemen.” He espouses the importance of football to the country, education and boys around the world.
The film is designed in a way very similar to another I recently watched–Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Coppola made that film as an homage to a man he admired, patterned as an advertisement of sorts that painted everything in broad and clear strokes. Here things are painted in a similar way, but more because the grey of reality had a tendency to be ignored in film in favour of more easily categorized ideas and characters. So, unlike that much later film, Rockne the film comes off as a completely serious ad for Rockne the man, and seems designed for football fans to puff out their chests in pride at the sport’s history and grand importance to things. Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy watching football fairly well, but it’s obviously nowhere near the center of my life. I don’t sneer at it, or look down at it, but this is a bit much. I don’t think it’s useless or unnecessary, or that the committee that claimed it should be removed was right–though certainly, and Knute apparently agreed, any coach falsifying academic records of players to maintain their active status was a no goodnik–but I think this is a little excessive. It’s a little chuckle-inducing to see the importance bestowed upon the idea of the game, or on Rockne as a coach. I think it’s fantastic that he was that strong a figure and leader to all of the players under him, and that he is admired by fans all over. I have nothing against that–but this seems to be painting him as a bit of a saint (for instance, his run-in with a gambler seems so stage-y it’s just shy of ridiculous, with O’Brien the only thing holding the seams together) and completely unrealistic, without that sense of acknowledgement that Coppola imbued his film with.
O’Brian has a strange habit in this film of never moving his neck and staring at nothing and no one. I can’t figure out if this is some sort of reference to the real Knute Rockne, or if the director was just incompetent. I know O’Brien could act before this and after it, so I can’t imagine it was on him (though, admittedly, I’m thinking of films directed by greats like Capra and Curtiz) responsible for that oddity, which always sort of screwed with the feeling of scenes. Reagan is lackadaisical as Gipp, he seems to not care one bit about the performance he gives, is mostly awkward and “dead,” and I am not impressed. This sort of puts strikes against both of his careers in my book–and it was really sealed when he delivered a horrible and saccharine speech about Rockne not only poorly, but by making eye contact with the audience. Ever heard of a fourth wall, Ronnie? Maybe that was director Lloyd Bacon’s fault, too, though. I can’t be sure.
I feel I should note that I was actually taken aback at one point when I could swear there was actually a handheld pan. I don’t think I’ve seen one like that, a simultaneous pan and zoom by hand, in a film of this age ever before. Usually it’s either stationary cameras or mechanical/craned cameras with smooth, clear movement. Later, during practice of Rockne’s new shift, there’s a pretty great set of shots with the players passing to the camera and then catching from the camera, the camera acting as middle man between multiple actions in the whole practice, including being tackled and tackling a few times. It’s a fun experience, though I cringed a bit each time and wondered how many lenses and cameras were lost…