Sportsflicks: The Alex English/Gregory Peck Vehicle That Ended The Cold War

"Amazing Grace and Chuck" isn't very good, and is occasionally very not-good. It's almost well-meaning enough to make up for that.
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This edition of Sportsflicks can be considered a response to the Donald Sterling scandal, but it could also relate to any athletic protest. The bulk of this article was written a while ago, in fact, in response to Jason Collins’ coming out, and in response to Vladimir Putin’s politicization of the Winter Olympics, and in response to anyone who has the guts to stand up for what they believe in. It keeps because it is about a well-meaning but extremely terrible movie centering around athletes and children who make a difference, and also because of how, even if every part of said movie rings hollow and makes you laugh when you’re supposed to cry, at least they attempted to do something to make the world a better place.

So, yes, this Sportsflicks is about Amazing Grace And Chuck.

By the end of the Reagan administration, American moviegoers were being served the leftover trimmings and fatty scrapple of the second golden age of nuclear war films. Threads, The Day After and Testament, among other really depressing films, had come and gone. A bunch of films that had probably been conceived at roughly the same time but had not been produced for years were released to a more glasnost-friendly world, and for the most part received less attention. The best of these movies was the (actually pretty good!) Anthony Edwards vehicle Miracle Mile which, with all due respect to Miracle Mile or Anthony Edwards, is exactly as much of a compliment as it looks like.  

These were the circumstances in which Amazing Grace And Chuck was released into the wild. This 1987 film posits that one boy, an NBA All-Star and future Activia spokesperson Jamie Lee Curtis could Make A Difference, and perhaps forestall global thermonuclear annihilation. It also doesn’t hurt when your simple act of civil disobedience has Ted Turner as an “executive consultant.” We should at least consider that this entire film was a 50th birthday gift to Jane Fonda.  

Joshua Zuehlke, in his best (and only) film performance, plays Chuck Murdock, a slightly husky little lad with the arm and the high-pitched pubescent voice of a young Roger Clemens. He gets scared easily, most dramatically when he visits a local missile silo (as one does) and is basically told his whole family will die at the drop of a fork once Defcon 1 happens. The second or third scariest 1980’s nuclear war-based dream sequence ever freaks the hell out of Chuck, who plans to stop pitching until atomic disarmament is complete, and the Jackson Browne song “Lawyers In Love” becomes irrelevant.

Alex English -- whose rainbow disco skyline Denver Nuggets throwback jersey I’ve seen at great number at gay pride events, because rainbow disco skyline -- plays Boston Celtics superstar “Amazing” Grace Smith. Amazing G is an alternate universe Larry Bird, and dispatches the Jeff Ruland/Danny Vranes-era Philadelphia 76ers with a deadeye three-point shot and a willingness to dream big. English, who went 18 for 83 beyond the arc for his career, does his best acting on the court.

This future Basketball Hall of Famer decides to quit the game, and moves to Livingston, Montana, so as to live near both Murdock and miles and miles of prairie. Which is fairly weird, actually, considering how Chuck doesn’t even initially seem to recognize him as an athlete.

Pretty soon, Livingston becomes a whole damn commune, featuring former NFL quarterback Carlos Brown, er, I mean, Alan Autry, future Quentin Tarantino favorite Michael Bowen, and Super Bowl XII co-MVP Harvey Martin, who is seen carrying a bathtub over his head and pushing a pickup truck to fend off Commie-hating ‘Merican marauders who attack The Livingston Project. If this situation occurred today in real life, Spencer Hawes would be one of the townspeople, and Autry would be the belligerent mayor.  And the movie would be called Chris Kluwe, Dave Zirin And Chuck.

William L. Petersen -- still the best William Petersen -- plays Chuck’s fighter pilot father, who is cyclically proud of and disappointed with his boy, if mostly the latter. His mother, played by "Six Feet Under"’s Frances Conroy, generally stays in the background, while Jamie Lee Curtis, as Amazing’s agent, is being pestered by a mysterious man who wants Amazing Grace to keep quiet. This shady capitalistic supervillain is played by Lee Richardson, who narrated Network, and basically gets forced out of business by the President of the United States and the Goodyear blimp, just as Donald Sterling was in real life. Gregory Peck is surprisingly Reagan-esque in his homespun condescension as the President, and Dennis Lipscomb, who was in half the nuclear war films of the era, is convincingly pretty much over the whole World War III thing when he talks about it to Chuck at the silo. Red Auerbach and Johnny Most appear as themselves, which is convenient.

Amazing Grace And Chuck has its heart in the right place, and everything else is all over the damn place. Amazing Grace becomes a martyr in one of the most awkward plane crash scenes of all time. Normally this would count as a spoiler alert, and I suppose it is and sorry about that, but also you have to see this for yourself. It is really quite bad.

Also, it’s hardly a spoiler given that the movie telegraphs it from the start. Amazing Grace is announced early on as a magical NBA Hall of Famer stereotype when we learn about his deceased wife and child; his sexless relationship with Jamie Lee Curtis seals it. After Amazing’s death, Chuck takes his protest a step further by undertaking a vow of silence, in which he is followed by the children of the world.

And so Chuck becomes a fictional version of Samantha Smith, and an also-fictional version of that episode of the "Golden Girls" where Rose writes a letter to the President, and Reagan mistakes it for a child’s meanderings. Maybe the people who made this film tried to recall Joseph Losey’s 1948 anti-war film The Boy With Green Hair, perhaps the least craziest movie associated with Dean Stockwell. This is maybe the time to mention that Amazing Grace and Chuck was directed by Mike Newell, who would later direct both Four Weddings And A Funeral, Donnie Brasco, and one of the watchable Harry Potter films. And, for all the other things that can be said about it, Amazing Grace and Chuck does indeed have all the childlike wonder and whimsy of Donnie Brasco.

What Jason Collins, Michael Sam and other athletes have done in coming out was courageous, of course, and heroic and welcome and overdue. But these were the actions of individuals, and had the backing of a society that was finally ready and willing to accept LGBT athletes. The Donald Sterling backlash should have come years ago -- possibly before he crashed The Classical’s website -- but it was our last, best hope of getting a horrible owner and worse person out of basketball. We should be glad for the David Geffen/Magic Johnson/Church Of Scientology-era Clippers, if only because they will not be worse than what came before. It’s strange, in a way, how prosaic this sort of massive change looks as it’s happening.  

By comparison, the mythmaking behind Amazing Grace And Chuck seems disingenuous, to say the least. We now know (or think we know) more about athletes more than ever before. We know, for starters, that while they are good enough to play at the highest level of their chosen sport, they are still human.

Amazing Grace Smith does not get that consideration. He is so immaculate, so monastic and saintly and neutered and weird, that his agent throws an ad for a large bottle of dark liquid he did in his face as an example of betrayal. This is what counts as a crucial violation for this character, in this film.  

I had to rewind my VHS copy -- forgive me, I wrote the first draft of this in 1987 -- because I thought Amazing G was holding a forty of malt liquor in the ad. It turned out to be a bottle of Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail, in what can only be described as the laziest ad mock-up of all time.

Do Chuck Murdock’s throwing skills atrophy after months of rest? Was that godawful fake plane crash that claimed Amazing Grace Smith in vain? How does Mike Newell portray American sports? If these are the sort of questions you have, know that they will mostly be answered here.

Like many films in the Sportsflicks canon, Amazing Grace And Chuck is pretty crazy. It might be crazy enough to make you think, but it’s not quite crazy enough to make you think about anything in particular, beyond how that cranberry juice ad got past the producers.

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