Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer is one of the dullest sports movies ever made, which is precisely the point, after all, for how else to convey the spirit of the time in which it was made than by associating athletic endeavor with grim duty, empty spectacle, and selfish cruelty? That it’s anticlimactic doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of its disdain for cinematic tradition; this is a tedious, dry exposition about an intolerable human being, and for once we’re the better for it. Skiing, here of the downhill variety, has never appeared less thrilling, and for all the enthusiasm David Chappellet (Robert Redford) gives it, he might as well be marching to the gas chamber. He’s more than an anti-hero, he’s the anti-personality; a callous, unfazed bastard who tires quickly, but only after slouching, mumbling, and shuffling his way through life with a body he long ago gave up for dead. He’s the kind of man, who, when asked what’s to come after the Olympics, answers, “This is it.” There is no next step because he’s utterly incapable of enjoying the present. He moves on, but only because breathing is largely involuntary. Even his flirtations with the opposite sex are perfunctory and half-hearted. His looks secure him company, but he’s never anything but alone. He’s the textbook narcissist who closes out the world to focus exclusively on his self-hatred.
Overall, I can’t say I “enjoyed” the film, largely because it generated little heat, despite the iconoclastic treatment of American sport. It’s a landmark to be sure, as it avoids big finishes, last-second heroics, or eye-popping competition. Hell, it’s not even fun. But as such, it’s all theoretical; an intellectual exercise that blasts away at the marble edifice of national pride, but one so humorless it’s more a well-considered essay than entertainment. And hey, it takes quite the set of balls to make us hate the golden boy Redford, who risked his image as the dreamy, slightly weathered man’s man in order to appear idiotic and heartless. After all, it’s hard for the females to sign up when his David romances a sexy European just long enough to toss her to the wolves the second she has a life not involving his ego. She loves him pretty much at first glance, but only because he’s fast and flashy on the slopes, which is all he has going for him, of course. Their conversations are brief, mundane, and practically non-existent, as David has come to believe the quickest way to a woman’s bed is to exclude the English language from consideration. Talking only complicates things. And as we don’t really see David in the act of lovemaking (every incident is cut short), it’s likely he’s as brief and uninspired in that department as well.
Gene Hackman is on hand as the skiing coach, and it’s his job to be frustrated and pushed to the brink in turn, and while he’s always watchable, there’s a degree of waste here than can’t be easily forgiven. He wants David to be a team player, but this is 1969, and symbols are required to stand in for a nation that has sacrificed emotion, community, and love on the altar of war and greed. The whole “now what?” ethos ruled this day, and many days to come, and David is but one face in a parade of gloom. In some ways, Redford’s David is the father of his Senator-in-waiting Bill McKay from 1972’s The Candidate (same director), who left it all in the campaign, without a clue of how to actually govern. Both men push and promise and stay hard for the fight, but victory, however it is to be defined, is never really possible. To win is to lose, and to consider any form of completion is to admit that one is actually powerless to affect any real change. Winning a Senate seat or a gold medal might sound good for that instant, then quickly fades as expectations rise in the face of real responsibility. The final run from Downhill Racer, which ends with an abruptness usually reserved for a broken projector or burned reel, is a case in point: he’s high from holding on, but he hasn’t a clue what it’s supposed to mean. We’re a culture that reserves its highest level of intolerance for failure, yet we’re not given any real instructions on what victory involves. Enjoy it, we say, which amounts to a special kind of meaninglessness.
Consider Chappellet’s visit home to Idaho Springs, Colorado to see his father. During his brief stay, David glares at his pop, drives into town to fuck an old flame (he all but tells her he’d prefer that she not speak a word), and returns to complain and glare a little more. When his father asks him why he skis, David answers: “Why, to be famous….to be a champion.” Staring intently as if in possession of the wisdom of the gods, dad responds, “Plenty of them around.” It’s more than a disappointed father’s icy dismissal, it’s a slogan for an age. Lots of so-called winners around, he suggests, who seem to do little else but remind you of their winning ways. At the very least, dad seems to know that he’s failed the boy, as he’s not even able to do something he loves. Curious how it’s assumed that in life, what we’re good at should automatically be enjoyed; a permanent smile to display for the world as proof of fulfillment. Downhill Racer is from a time when answers weren’t expected, and it was enough to simply have an attitude. Leaning towards nihilistic disdain for life as lived, it shrugs its shoulders, fails to provide alternatives, and believes that for now, it’s sufficient to diagnose the illness. Sick, right down to our marrow, and, like David, hoping a great head of hair can allow us to fake it just along enough to escape.