The Disney Treatment

A mix of reality, falsehood, emotional manipulation, and darned good storytelling. Photo is Disney promo materials.

If you see the new biopic Young Woman and the Sea–and I do recommended you see it–you should be aware that the actual James Sullivan, head of the American Athletic Union, was dead twelve years before the key events in the movie take place. It’s what ticks me off about these sports movies. What happened is fascinating in its own right, so why do they make up stuff? Why do they have to create false emotional tension, when the real tension is already in the story? And why do I cry every time when the athlete does the thing that I knew that they would do, all along?

Young Woman and the Sea is one of three Disney sports movies that I particularly like, the other two being Dangal and McFarland USA. All three might be termed shamelessly manipulative, but perhaps that’s the nature of our response to humans overcoming obstacles. In this post, I will point out some of the good and the bad about these movies, set the record straight for the “um, actually” crowd, but still give these all a thumb’s up. They deserve watching.

Historical Inaccuracy

Young Woman is about Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926. Without giving away too many spoilers, fact checking of the movie details reveals that Trudy did have a near-death case of the measles as a child (vaccinate people!), she did swim with her sister, and her “coaches” did work to disqualify her in her Channel swim, though not the way the movie showed. And she did have a giant ticker tape parade, one of the biggest ever in New York.

The real Ederle before her swim. (Daily News photo)

On the other hand, Ederle won a fistful of medals in the Paris Games, including a gold medal in the relay. She did not return to the U.S. in humiliation, as the movie described. She wasn’t the skinny wisp of a thing that Daisy Ridley is, all respect to Ridley, whose performance is as strong as her swimming. Ridley doesn’t have enough body fat to cope with such an ordeal.

Gertrude Ederle’s ticker tape parade was one of the largest ever. Photo from Library of Congress.

Most of all, I was puzzled the James Sullivan character. Why did they stick in a character named for someone who was dead at the time, rather than use whoever was head of the AAU in 1926? Moreover, why do all the fact-checking articles not even mention this fact, which is blatantly obvious to anyone who has spent years studying the history of American sports and the Olympics. I mean, c’mon, everybody knows that James Sullivan… well… er… perhaps only I know who he was.

James Sullivan was an unmitigated asshat. Sorry, Internet, but he was. Sullivan really did bar women from swimming. In 1912, when swimming events for women were added to the Stockholm Olympics, he said American women could swim, provided they wore full-length gowns. Hence, there were no women from Team USA women in those Games. In fact, the only reason that Ederle and her teammates went to Paris in 1924 was because Sullivan died and took his legacy of forbidding women to compete with him. (Don’t even ask about the racist “Anthropology Games” that Sullivan organized as part of the 1904 World’s Fair.) On second thought, then, I forgive them for slapping his name on to the Generic Misogynist Disney Villain who stands in Ederle’s way.

James Sullivan, who did not persecute Trudy Ederle and also looked nothing like the guy in the movie. But he was a misogynistic, racist jerk. Wikipedia photo.

Sullivan’s bias did leave a giant skid mark on the AAU for years, so all the prejudice that the movie depicts against women swimming was real. I was surprised that one reviewer of the film said that “you’d be hard-pressed to find a living person who believes women should not be allowed to go swimming.” That’s rather the point. We do take it for granted now, but in 1924, society (i.e. male-dominated cultural mores) believed that women should not be allowed to go swimming. The movie does a good job of showing that the giant waves in the English Channel were not the biggest tide pushing against Gertrude Ederle.

Manufactured Emotion

The movie Dangal also has its share of inaccuracies and a whopping dollop of unnecessary emotional manipulation, although there is a lot that the story gets right. Backed by Disney, Dangal is a Bollywood film, with the requisite song and dance numbers, that tells the story of the rise of women freestyle wrestlers in India.

“Dangal” roughly means wrestling arena, and the movie was a big hit in India, small video hit in the U.S. Photo from Disney promo materials.

There really was, as the movie shows, an an amateur Indian wrestler, Mahavir Phoghat, who trained his daughters to be wrestlers in the rustic techniques of Indian dirt wrestling. Geeta, his eldest daughter, went on to become the first woman to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. Her sister Babita made it to the World Wrestling Championships, while two female cousins also competed in wrestling on an elite level. The Phoghat wrestling dynasty helped propel the Indian women’s wrestling team as a whole to greatness in the early 2010s, and Geeta’s real-life sparring partner, Sakshi Malik, ended up with a gold in the Rio 2016 Olympics.

In Dangal, the father Mahavir is disappointed by the birth of so many daughters. Fact checkers say that in reality it was his wife who was disappointed. However, it’s not a stretch to say that disappointment at daughters was a cultural norm of the time and place. Why he trained his daughters might be subject to speculation, but the movie does an excellent job of creating his rationale and sticking with it. In promotional interviews with daughters Geeta and Babita, they say that he was far stricter than the movie made him out to be.

The girls have a love-hate relationships with their wrestling training. Photo from Dangal.

The worst aspect of the movie is the elaborate plot in the climax, where the professional coach for adult Geeta becomes the villain who locks dad in a storage room just when she is struggling in her final match. (It’s the worst part of the movie, so I don’t mind spoiling it, so there!) She falls behind because she can’t hear from dad, until he escapes and rescues her by miming some wrestling move at the dramatic moment. Frankly, wrestling is dramatic enough. It doesn’t need such nonsense. It’s frustrating when the movie makers don’t trust the inherent drama of the sport to tell its own story.

What Dangal gets really right is the look and feel of the training and the dirt wrestling style of rural India. Sure we’ve seen it, but it works. Who can resist the fundamental trope of the young girl going into the ring and beating a bunch of boys after they call her names? Her mother visiting one local Indian medical woman after another to get advice on ensuring her baby will be a boy. The father, driving the girls hard in training until they quit, then come back and beat him. Best of all, the plot doesn’t rest on her falling in love with one of the the boys and giving up wrestling to be with him, or any of that 1950s nonsense. She goes to the Games and wins the medals. As she should.

Apparently, this film set a variety of records as one of the highest grossing films in India, the 16th highest grossing sports film of all time. They love it in China. The big problem with it now is that it’s very hard to find and ridiculously expensive to buy. Maybe I can find it in a library remainder bin at some point.

Ridiculously Heartwarming

What these movies do successfully is the How. Of course, she swims the Channel. Of course, she wins the medal. Of course, they win the state championship. These are movies that are about so-and-so doing the thing. The devil is always in the details, and if they can get the look and feel right without making stuff up, then it’s the real deal.

The original McFarland cross country champions. Photo from Wikipedia.

McFarland USA, a little movie about running, also isn’t entirely accurate or perfectly written, but it has so much heart. It chronicles the success of a cross country team from the Central Valley of California, the Latino kids of a dirt poor town who spend their morning and evening picking vegetables, with little hope of doing better than staying out of the prison that’s just down the street. When their coach, played by Kevin Costner, thinks they might achieve success because they run everywhere, it seems a pretty big long shot. One look at the names of the other teams tells you why– Palo Alto, Belmont, Hilsborough, Menlo Park — these are the kids of high tech executives in Silicon Valley.

The coach in real life didn’t get in trouble for telling off spoiled jocks in Idaho or mouthy parents in Minnesoa; he grew up in the Central Valley. He had been teaching at McFarland for several years before starting a team and coached them for several years before they went to state. His daughter didn’t have a quincenera that interfered with the team’s practices, and there was no big fight that… well, none of that matters. That’s all just plot to break up the running. But the running is spectacular.

Kevin Costner, it turns out, grew up in Visalia in the Central Valley and played baseball against McFarland’s baseball team. It explains why his character seems to have so much respect for the kids from the beginning. When the Whites–for that is his name and the kids do call him “Blanco”–arrive in town, they are the fish out of water. But unlike the Connecticut Yankee approach, the Whites don’t try to civilize the town. Instead, they have to adapt and to understand what it’s like to grow up with so little hope. Yes, maybe it’s too much of a White Savior movie (it really was the coach’s name) for some tastes, but ultimately it spotlights the kids.

Coach White finding out how hard it is to pick lettuce. Photo from McFarland USA, Disney studios.

The movie has a beautiful background Latino guitar music that runs like a river underneath the feet of the athletes. The details resonate so well, from the neighbor who hands Coach White a chicken as a welcome gift to the principal who quips, “I can’t afford to fire you” when White runs afoul of the other football coach. The tamale sale, the vintage hand-painted cars, and joy on the faces of the kids when they get their first dip in the ocean on the drive back from a meet in Palo Alto.

Most of these movies have a “where are they now” segment at the end, showing real footage of the athletes next to their acting counterparts. McFarland’s is particularly good in running down the fate of the runners, most of whom did graduate from college and returned home to give back to their community as coaches, teachers, and police officers.

All of these movies shamelessly tug at your heartstrings as the music swells, which is the patented sports formula that can be particularly saccharine in a Disney film. Still, I dare you not to tear up when you hear Kevin Costner bark, “That’s not Danny Diaz!” I’m getting a little misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Thomas Valles in McFarland, USA, who ended up returning to coach in town. Photo from Disney.

2 Replies to “The Disney Treatment”

  1. This reminded me of the Prime Video original sports drama, ‘The Miracle Season.’ It’s ‘based on a true story,’ where the star of a state champion high school volleyball team dies in an accident as the team prepares to defend their title and the ups and downs for the team. The young woman died just before the new school year and the new season started. For the movie, they depicted the school year and the season starting before she died. Why? They couldn’t flash back to the previous year to show how important she was to the team? They couldn’t begin the school year without her and show the turmoil that would have been?

    The movie definitely tugged at the heartstrings, but I found it odd they way they chose to play it.

  2. I looked up “The Miracle Season,” and you are spot on. Why do this? Why pick a particularly good subject, then ruin it by changing the core basis of the story? It’s kind of an insult to the people who went through their experience. Don’t say it’s based on a true story then just change everything else about the story, if you’re going to change one big fact, i.e. a player dies BEFORE the season starts. (It is interesting to me that Iowa City High School, the school of the volleyball team happens to be where our local football hero George Kittle came from…) Anyway, where I landed with these three films is that the changes weren’t big enough to change the way they played through the outcome. (Even though I was personally appalled at the James Sullivan thing… that’s obviously just me. Cause I’m planning a book where he features prominently.) Anyway, food for thought and thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

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