Breaking Away (1979)

Director: Peter Yates

Producer: Peter Yates (Fox)

Writer: Steve Tesich (screenplay)

Photography: Matthew F. Leonetti

Music: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Friedrich von Flotow, Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Gioachino Rossini

Cast: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie, Paul Dooley, Robyn Douglass, Hart Bochner, Amy Wright, Peter Maloney, John Ashton, Lisa Shure, Jennifer K. Mickel

Of all the AFI’s Top 10 Most Inspirational Films — from Rocky (1976) to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) — Breaking Away is easily the least known. What a shame. Peter Yates’ uplifting, and surprisingly funny, underdog cycling story is one of the very best of its kind, moving beyond the realm of sports and touching on such powerful issues as class struggle, self worth, familial relationships and rebellion against the norm. Perhaps this is why Breaking Away remains one of the few sports movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture and to win Best Screenplay. Pop it in the DVD player right now, but don’t expect a typical sports film. Expect more.

Set in Bloomington, Indiana, the film introduces us to four teens who each hail from a working class family. Having just graduated from high school, they put off growing up by spending the summer days taking high dives off a rock quarry and wondering what perks, if any, come from turning 19. There’s Mike (Dennis Quaid), a former quarterback who always keeps a pack of smokes in his shirtsleeve; Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), a bullied shrimp who’s gradually getting more serious with his girlfriend Nancy (Amy Wright); and Cyril (Daniel Stern in his debut film), a lanky kid who missed out on a basketball scholarship and now must put up with the put downs of his father.

These are the three best friends of the film’s main character, Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), a cycling fanatic who idolizes European cyclists so much that he’s become obsessed with all things Italian. He greets neighbors with an Italian accent. He blares Italian classical music from his room. He even shaves his legs. As a confused elderly neighbor says, “He was as normal as pumpkin pie, and now look at him. His poor parents.”

Indeed, Dave’s obsession begins taking a toll on his old fashioned parents, played by Paul Dooley (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Barbara Barrie, who would return for an Emmy-nominated Breaking Away TV series. The biggest strain is clearly on the father, a used car salesman who can’t stand the idea of a son with tight biking shorts and shaved legs. He calls him “a weirdo kid” and says, “I die of shame everytime I see him.” Dooley is exceptional in an intolerant, easily annoyed, Archie Bunker kind of way, delivering some of the best ironic lines in the film: “I know ‘Iti’ food when I hear it. It’s all them “ini” foods — zucchini and linguini and fettucini. I want some American food damnit! I want French fries!”

Such shimmering dialogue shows why Steve Tesich’s script won an underdog Oscar against such phenomenal scripts as Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Yet Tesich’s biggest accomplishment is his ability to weave multiple thematic elements into one entirely original, unashamedly oddball story. The strained relationship between father and son is just one of many routes the script takes, from Dave’s unrest about whether to apply to college, to the group’s continued rivalry with the hot-shot jocks of Indiana University.

The latter of these devices is further enflamed when Dave, posing as a foreign exchange student, strikes up a relationship with sorority girl Katherine (Robyn Douglass), the girlfriend of head jock Rod (Hart Bochner, Die Hard). The rivalry ultimately leads to a climatic showdown at Indiana’s Little 500 bicycle race, but the dichotomy between the two groups — the college types and Dave’s friends — serves a much greater purpose, summed up in the guys’ unique team name — The Cutters.

The term is used by the college guys as an insult to Dave and his crew, as it refers to the blue-collar quarry workers, the rock cutters, the townies of Bloomington. It highlights the town’s class differences between the rich and privileged college students and the hard-working cutters who always get the short end of the stick. As Mike says, “For them, it’s just a dirty word. For me, it’s just somethin’ else I never got a chance to be.”

If you detect a slightly personal edge to the script, you’re right. Tesich based the script on his own experiences, graduating from Indiana University just a few years after the death of his blue-collar machinist father. While a Hoosier, Tesich had been part of the 1962 Phi Kappa Psi Little 500 champions, serving as a teammate of Dave Blase and Bob Stohler, whose names he combined to create the character Dave Stoller. The film would remain very much intertwined with its story’s roots, with Yates shooting the final race scenes at the campus’ “old” Memorial Stadium, which has since been demolished. The Indiana Student Foundation promised 20,000 extras for the climatic race, but when only 3,000 showed up, Yates had to improvise and change camera angles to give the illusion of more. (A)

Yates, a native of England, does some inspired work behind the camera, most memorably his construction of Dave chasing a semi-truck down the highway, a moment ESPN called “one of the two most inspiring training scenes in movie history,” the other assumably being Stallone’s legendary stair climb in Rocky (1976). But rather than Bill Conti’s surging trumpets, Yates chooses to score his film entirely with Italian classical pieces, most impressively when Dave romantically serenades Katherine, cross-cut with the Stoller household, where Dave’s mother plays the same song on the stereo, picking up in each cut where the song left off in the shot before.

The classical music joins Dave’s Italian fetish and the subject of cycling as elements that would never be the first choices of most filmmakers, but which Yates uses perfectly to create a stunning work of heart and originality. In this, he is a visionary, inventing the Hoosiers of “smaller sports” movies by presenting a skinny, tights-wearing cyclist that redefined the idea of the heroic athlete long before America’s ill-fated obsession with Lance Armstrong. After all, Dave Stoller is an absolute machine on that bike, something the film forces even the most macho of viewers to admit. It’s hard not to respect his athletic ability after the film’s rousing finish, in which Yates, channeling his high-speed Steve McQueen hit Bullit (1968), constructs a brilliant final race sequence.

Cutting from close shots of bike pedals and spokes to wide shots of the field of cyclists, Yates knows how to place viewers inside the action. More importantly, he knows when to restrain himself and let us act as spectators, realizing that the most exciting moment in all of sports is that neck-and-neck race to a photo finish — be it Kentucky Derby horses, Indy 500 cars, Olympic sprinters or Breaking Away cyclists.

As such, he lets the final two laps play out in real time, uncut, without any semblence of staging, and the result is real tension, real excitement and real inspiration. When the checkered flag waves, it’s impossible not to smile. Breaking Away has just worked its magic, and viewers cheer not only for Dave “breaking away” from a pack of racers, but for all the other “breaking away” that has occurred — from self-doubt, from social norms, from family disputes, from class restraints, and certainly from the average sports movie.



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