Hollywood exaggerates a lot, even in films based on true stories. And, for the most part, people are OK with it. A little embellishment can go a long way to making a movie more entertaining.
When Vin Diesel’s character in Fast & Furious 6 jumps over a freakin’ bridge to catch Michelle Rodriguez and crashes to the ground unharmed, no one stops high-fiving everyone in the audience to ponder how unrealistic (and probably fatal) such a maneuver really is.
When it’s a sports movie, though, things don’t really work the same way. Nothing takes a die-hard sports fan out of the moment more than seeing fictionalized play on the field that looks nothing like real life.
Some movies get sports right, but lots get it very wrong. Below, we take an in-depth look at both sides of the coin.
Note: For the purposes of this article, goofy comedies are being ignored. Obviously, Little Big League (child effectively manages a MLB team), Happy Gilmore (pro golfer uses a golf club modified to look like a hockey stick) and Major League (team from Cleveland actually wins some games) aren’t realistic — that’s kind of the point.
Most realistic sports movies
6. North Dallas Forty
What it got right: Released in 1979 and based on a semi-autobiographical novel by a real Dallas Cowboys receiver, it was one of the first sports films to examine some of the darker aspects of professional sports, like drug abuse and sex with groupies. As we now know, professional football players of that era were pretty big fans of both those things.
What it got wrong: Some critics argue the film was a little too heavy on satire to be taken seriously. Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail argued that “the lone man versus the corrupt system mentality deprives it of real resonance.”
5. Friday Night Lights
What it got right: Small-town Texans really, really care about high school football. When the local team loses, people really do go nuts. The football scenes in the film, which have been praised for their realism, depict real plays from Permian High School’s actual 1988 playbook. Many of the players on the field for these scenes were former high school and college football players.
What it got wrong: Permian didn’t lose to rivals Dallas Carter in the championship game, as they do in the movie. The school actually lost in the semi-finals.
What it got right: Director Michael Mann took great pains to portray Muhammad Ali’s (Will Smith) fights as realistically as possible.
What it got wrong: In the film’s final bout, Ali sits down between rounds. In real life, he remained standing for the entire fight. Legendary trainer Angelo Dundee is present for a fight in the film that he wasn’t at in real life.
3. Cinderella Man
What it got right: Based on the true story of Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock, even some of the film’s most dramatic moments are based on things that really happened. Braddock really did fight through a broken hand.
What it got wrong: In real life, Braddock had more than two days to prepare for his big comeback fight. The film has also been criticized for oversimplifying the motivations of Braddock’s main opponent, Max Baer.
2. Big Fan
What it got right: Not your typical sports movie, writer-director Robert D. Siegel’s follow-up to The Wrestler is about a lonely man who still lives with his mother and gets his only enjoyment in life by calling in to local sports radio shows and ranting. When he meets one of his football heroes in real life, he finds out heroes aren’t always the good guys you want them to be.
What it got wrong: Not a lot. The main character, portrayed by Patton Oswalt, is so annoying when he meets his favorite player in a bar that the player actually beats him up. NFL stars aren’t always cordial toward fans, but rarely do they assault them.
What it got right: The film is based on a true story and the production employed numerous real jockeys and took great pains (including “storyboarding” races using My Little Pony toys laid out on a miniature track) to ensure all races portrayed were staged as realistically as possible.
What it got wrong: Several of the details about the humans in the film were modified or exaggerated.
Least realistic sports movies
3. Any Given Sunday
What it got right: The scenes in the showers after the game feature some of the longest and thickest penises you’ll ever see in a film not rated XXX. I don’t know for sure, but I assume that’s a pretty accurate representation of what it’s like in an NFL locker room. Also, the third-string quarterback character played by Jamie Foxx pukes on the field and that’s something we’ve seen from real-life quarterback Donovan McNabb on more than one occasion.
What it got wrong: When the movie was released, some critics hailed it as a hyper-realistic look at the cutthroat world of pro football. Those critics were wrong. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Nearly every game scene in the movie is filled with over-the-top violence and/or cartoonish athletic feats. When the ball is snapped in real-life football, the offensive and defensive lines don’t just leap onto each other and form one big pile of wriggling bodies, like they do in the clip below. Likewise, eyeballs very rarely end up rolling on the turf.
2. The Natural
What it got right: It’s a great film that can make just about any grown man tear up.
What it got wrong: About that famous scene at the end … Yeah, there’s just no way a ball could collide with a single stadium light and cause all the lights in the stadium to erupt in a beautiful fireworks show of sparks. That’s ridiculous. It’s some Angels in the Outfield crap in a movie where no angels (or anything supernatural) are present.
1. The Last Boy Scout
What it got right: Casting Bruce Willis as the lead in an early ’90s action movie was a slam dunk.
What it got wrong: At the beginning of the movie, a pro football player gets a call at halftime telling him he has to score a touchdown to win the game or he’s dead. So, like any reasonable person, he calls the cops and reports what happened to him. Wait, no, that’s not what happens at all. Instead, he takes PCP and shoots three players with a gun he sneaks onto the field before shooting himself in the head after he scores the touchdown. Oh, and he does it in a football stadium where thousands of fans are watching a game in almost total darkness.