Monday, February 13, 2023

Life of a Downhill Racer

Redford as David Chappellet.
My favorite sport in the Winter Olympics has been downhill racing ever since I saw Downhill Racer (1969) on network television as a teenager. The high speeds, the sound of the skis whooshing across the snow, and the images of skiers sailing over bumps in the course...what's not to like?

I recently watched Downhill Racer for the first time in several decades and, while its impact has diminished, it still held my interest and the skiing chases (of which they're not enough) were as enthralling as ever.

Hackman as the coach.
Robert Redford plays David Chappellet, an alternate on the U.S. national men's skiing team, who joins the squad when one of its members is injured. Chappellet lacks international experience, but overflows with arrogance and confidence, a combination that creates an immediate rift with his teammates and coach (Gene Hackman). The catch, though, is that Chappellet is a sensational downhill skier and he rises quickly through the ranks to become the U.S. team's best hope for a Winter Olympics gold medal.

The theme here is a universal one: You don't have to be a nice person to become great at something. Indeed, Chappellet isn't an ugly individual and the screenplay tries to justify some of his behavior by showing his awkward relationship with his father. In one scene, his father asks why Chappellet is skiing and his son replies that he wants to be a champion. His father's response: The world is full of champions.

By the same token, Chappellet has little interest in anyone but himself. On a trip home, he has sex with an old girlfriend, but ignores her when she begins talking about her future. Later, he slams on a car's horn when his Swedish girlfriend tells him about Christmas with her family. He is peeved because she didn't spend the holidays with him. He could care less about her family. In the end, the only person that has a true connection with Chappellet is his rival on the U.S. skiing team. They share a passion for downhill racing and the risk-taking that's an integral part of it. They may never be friends, but it's as close as Chappellet may ever get.

Redford sheds his good-guy image to paint a nuanced portrait of his aloof, self-centered protagonist. Gene Hackman is equally good as the team's coach, who has to balance his time between fund-raising, coordinating travel, and keeping the team together.

While director Michael Ritchie could have tightened the story considerably, he excels in other areas. The skiing sequences, which sometimes incorporate a first-person perspective, draw the viewer into the thrills of downhill racing. Ritchie balances those exciting scenes with the bland life that surrounds the races. The hotels all look the same. The team passes time by playing table tennis and giving interviews to people that know little about the sport. The coach gives speeches to raise money and dines with sponsors to get free equipment. It's a seemingly dull existence--except for when the skiers are on the slopes.

Ritchie went on to make two other films that also pulled back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of a political race (The Candidate, again with Redford) and a beauty pageant (Smile). Neither of those movies are as compelling as Downhill Racer, which overcomes its shortcomings to function effectively as a character study and an above-average sports film.

1 comment:

  1. The dynamic score by Kenyon Hopkins, primarily a jazz musician, added to the impact of the movke, as I recall.