Is it possible for a movie to be too sincere? For it to be so warm-hearted and well-intentioned that it does itself harm? Once upon a time, I would have said no, but that was before I watched Daniel Anspaugh’s 1993 film Rudy. This is a picture which grinds you down with its sweetness and then lays you out with its feel-good ending. It kicked my ass with kindness.
This is the story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (future hobbit Sean Astin), who attempted to walk on to the football team at Notre Dame, back in the days when Notre Dame was the finest football school in the country. Rudy — I’m not sure, but I don’t think he’s ever called “Daniel” in the film — was a decent player in high school despite (according to his Wikipedia page) standing 5’6” and weighing 165 pounds. Even so, he should not have been Notre Dame material, as much for his grades as his size. I don’t think I’m spoiling much when I say that he’s able to fight past those obstacles.
Rudy was written by Angelo Pizzo, whose only previous film credit was another inspiring Indiana sports hit, Hoosiers. Unlike Hoosiers, which had some morally complicated characters and some difficult relationships, this script plays it safe all the way. Rudy announces in the second scene that he’s going to play football for Notre Dame, and there’s hardly any doubt that he’ll eventually pull it off. His obsession with Notre Dame football borders on creepy, with his re-creations of halftime speeches and his willingness to sweet-talk, con, or even lie his way into close proximity with the team.
But this is exactly where the movie grinds you down. Astin is so sincere and dedicated to the performance that what seems creepy at the beginning of the movie seems passionate at the end. Even the most snarky personality will struggle to maintain its cynicism in the face of the Rudy character. In fact, a shockingly young Vince Vaughn turns up in the movie to play that very role: he cynically suggests that Rudy’s practice intensity is just a way of showboating his way onto the team. Of course, he is converted to Rudy’s cause in the end just like everyone else. Disliking Rudy is like booing Santa Claus: it could only happen in hell, or Philadelphia.
The sincerity also applies behind the camera, where Anspaugh (who directed Hoosiers) and cinematographer Oliver Wood (the Bourne films, Face/Off) have a superb attention to detail. Every scene in the film looks great, and a bygone era is recreated with loving care. Unlike today’s antiseptic, polished games, in Rudy’s day college football was all about mud and blood. Rudy does a fine job capturing the gritty violence of the game, which is not as easy as you think since most of the football action takes place inside Notre Dame practice.
However, there’s a slight problem that I only discovered when I think back about the Vaughn character: this movie skips a step. The team is never really converted to Rudy; instead we jump from him getting his butt kicked in the first practice to his already having won over everyone on the team except Vaughn. I suppose it’s for the best because that would be a hard thing to show, since Rudy only plays defense and doesn’t contribute in games. However, it still made me feel like this movie jumped over an entire storyline.
That’s not the only storyline jumped over. Rudy gets no love interest, even though having the respect of the entire Notre Dame football varsity would seem to help in that regard. You might think the movie is going to go there, with a sub-plot involving a pretty member of the ND Booster Club, but she practically drops out of the movie not long after showing up. The same is true of Rudy’s high-school girlfriend, played by Lili Taylor; she has a couple of nice scenes at the beginning, leaves the film more a half-hour, comes back to deliver Rudy a cruel emotional gut punch, then promptly disappears again.
In my opinion the emotional center of this movie is provided by the great Charles S. Dutton, as the groundskeeper who offers Rudy his first on-campus job. There are a number of moments where Rudy is despairing about whether or not he’ll ever make it onto the field, and I thought, “Hey, wake up! Thousands of ballplayers never get within a dream of where you are, and two years at Holy Cross* is better than anyone in your family has ever done!” Then Dutton shows up in the movie and tells Rudy exactly that.
Moreover, Dutton serves as a subtle reminder that as small as Rudy might be, there was an era (within Rudy’s lifetime, even!) when guys twice his size, even All-American athletes, would have had just as hard a time getting on the field for no reason other than being black. It’s more than just a racial thing as well: Dutton also reminds us that hard work amongst the groundskeepers is just as important as hard work from the varsity starters. As inspiring as Rudy’s struggle is, he also needed people to give him a break from time to time, and it’s nice to have an actor with Dutton’s gravity standing in for all of those guys who didn’t get the breaks that Rudy got.
This was only the second movie ever to have permission to film on the Notre Dame campus, and as such no bad thing is ever going to be said about the Fighting Irish in this picture. Just being close to the team is like a religious experience for Rudy, and actually taking the field is the victory of a lifetime. It works in this movie because just dressing for a game is really all Rudy ever hoped for. Any other football powerhouse could stand in for the Irish; Rudy could be a kid in Los Angeles dreaming of suiting up for USC, and it would have the same effect.
At one point in the film Rudy is jogging within the bowels of Notre Dame stadium, and emerges from the building in silhouette, with the mural affectionately known as “Touchdown Jesus” looming in front of him. The response I had to that shot was like my response to the entire film: I found it emotionally manipulative, but it is so effectively done that I didn’t even care. Much like Field of Dreams, this is a movie which is designed to make audiences cheer and grown men cry, and it doesn’t care one iota if you find its values hokey or outdated. It doesn’t care if college sports has become a cynical money machine, or if Notre Dame ever regains its old glory. What Notre Dame used to be was good enough for Rudy, and this film tries its damnedest to make it good enough for us, too.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Meaning Holy Cross Junior College, today known as Holy Cross College, located near the Notre Dame campus. Rudy enters Holy Cross, as many do, with the idea of posting grades good enough to get him into Notre Dame.
[UPDATE: After I posted this review, Daniel Ruettiger was charged by the SEC in a stock fraud scheme. He tried to create a sports drink called Rudy Nutrition, marketed it with the slogan “Dream Big! Never Quit!”, and is accused of, among other things, lying about the drink’s performance in blind taste tests and artificially inflating the company’s price with crooked stock trades.]