My Favorite Movies – Breaking Away (1979)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Previously on Smith’s Verdict: “Is it better to win or to keep your self-respect?”

Well, this movie, “Breaking Away,” takes it a step further.

“Breaking Away,” directed by Peter Yates (of “Bullitt” fame) and written by Steve Tesich (who won the Oscar for this screenplay), is about a working-class 19-year-old in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. Like his friends, he still lives at home, isn’t in college, and isn’t sure what to do with his life. He does however have an affection for the sport of bicycle racing–he idolizes the famous Italian bike racers so much that he even speaks in an Italian accent, plays opera records much to the frustration of his father, and even renames Jake the cat to “Fellini.” He even manages to pick up a college girl, who thinks he’s an Italian exchange student, and he continues the ruse from there.

This is Dave (Dennis Christopher). His friends aren’t doing any better than he is–they spend nearly every day together and go swimming in water-filled rock quarries to pass the time. Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) has some idea of what he wants to do, which is marry his girlfriend Nancy (Amy Wright). Mike (Dennis Quaid) used to be a popular high-school football quarterback and is resentful of everyone who made it to college football except for him. Cyril (Daniel Stern) is even less ambitious, which would be so sad if he wasn’t so funny. (Cyril has the best lines in a film that is filled with great lines of dialogue.)

They’re labeled “cutters” by the university students, as a dirty slur to describe “townies” and because their parents were among the stonecutters who cut the limestones on numerous designs (including on campus). (The term “cutters” was made up for the film; the actual term is “stoners,” which wasn’t used for obvious reasons.) There’s a wonderful scene in which Dave’s father (Paul Dooley, wonderful here) takes a stroll with Dave on the college campus and talks about how he regrets the legacy he left behind for Dave. Dave says he doesn’t mind…his dad does.

Mike is sick of feeling inferior to the college guys (which include a young Ellis from “Die Hard,” I kid you not), so he wants to get him and his friends enrolled in the annual Indiana University Little 500 bicycle race–really, it’s a way for Dave to prove himself, so the four can sign up but Dave will actually ride the race for the team’s win. But Dave believes he’s better than a silly college race, so he sets his mind on competing with a professional Italian cycling team for a big cross-town race.

What happens to Dave in this race and what it leads to afterwards always inspires me each time I watch this film. So many people will do anything to win no matter what–but as this movie argues, what does that even prove? Dave learns (and I think his friends learn this too) that it’s the little accomplishments (and how they’re accomplished) that truly matter.

People generally root for the underdog in movies–it’s not just that we want them to win; what’s more important is how they win. (It’s kind of like watching a KC Chiefs game!)

I mentioned there were some funny lines from Cyril in this movie. Here are a few of them:

“When you’re 16, they call it sweet-16. When you’re 18, you get to drink and vote and see dirty movies. What the hell you get to do when you’re 19?”

“We rednecks are few. Paleface college students are many. I counsel peace.”

“We may plead, but we would never beg!”

And my personal favorite: “I wouldn’t mind thinking I was somebody myself.”

None of these sound very funny out of context. Just watch the movie if you haven’t already.

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