Commentary

'Mighty Macs' is a sports movie to love

Fictionalized elements don't take away from authentic, creative, well-acted film

Originally Published: October 20, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Just because you love sports doesn't mean you love movies about sports. To the contrary, that might make you like them even less. Or not at all. I'm on that end of the scale. Ask me my favorite sports movie, and I'll just shrug.

To me, the very thing that makes sports so exciting -- you really can't be certain what's going to happen -- doesn't translate well in scripted formula. Even if you are unaware of how a movie will end when you sit down to watch it, you know that ending is already set and unchangeable.

Another problem is that too often sports-movie scripts stretch the bounds of credibility in ways we true sports aficionados can't quite believe unless we know that it really, really, really happened that way.

Also, sports sequences themselves often have not been done well: The actors might try to look like athletes, but they can't actually move like them. The illusion of athleticism is difficult to fake if the actor is shown doing what the character supposedly excels at doing.

Lastly, most sports movies are extremely male-centric, although you could say that about the entire movie industry. But especially with sports movies, aside from rarities like "A League of Their Own," women typically have been in more one-dimensional roles of wives, girlfriends, one-night stands, groupies … or, occasionally, mothers. They are tangential, at best, to the athletes and sports being shown.

[+] EnlargeCathy Rush
Whitney Holtzman/espnW The real Cathy Rush poses for a photo before the movie's premiere last Friday. Rush coached Immaculata to three AIAW championships.

All of which brings us to "The Mighty Macs," which opens nationwide Friday. It's about a women's basketball team and a female coach, which puts it in a very, very small subset of sports movies.

Anyone familiar with the story of coach Cathy Rush building Immaculata College in Pennsylvania as a women's basketball power in the 1970s knew the potential it had to be a fine movie. But at a screening earlier this year, I still went in skeptical, for all the reasons above.

Would "The Mighty Macs" be feel-good, saccharine fluff with actors who looked more likely to trip over a basketball than be able to dribble one? Would it be loaded with "inspirational" dialogue that in no way resembled how actual humans speak to each other? Would it try to overdramatize a story that, if told virtually exactly how it happened, didn't need any added-on drama?

I walked out of the movie smiling. They pulled it off, making a movie that's authentic, creative and well-acted enough to satisfy cynics, while still being powerfully uplifting enough to please those who want their endings unequivocally happy.

I wouldn't just tell women's basketball players, coaches and fans to go see "The Mighty Macs." I'd tell anybody who wants a dose of inspiration. Male or female, sports fan or not.

That said, women's basketball followers will feel a special pride in watching this film, as they should. While liberties are taken with some characterizations and events, a lot of what is portrayed happened very similarly in real life. And even if you already know that Immaculata won three AIAW national championships, watching the story of how the team got to that point is still fascinating.

As for the actors not being able to convincingly play athletes, the movie solved that by having several of the Mighty Macs and their opponents portrayed by women who really do know how to play basketball. The fictional character of Trish Sharkey -- who in the movie is the Macs' best player -- was played by Katie Hayek, a former guard at Miami. The actual action sequences will stand up favorably with any basketball movie that has been made.

Still, the movie had no chance of working if actress Carla Gugino didn't so accurately portray the mix of charisma, optimism, stubbornness, strength, intensity and even chutzpah of Rush. Because Gugino does that all very well, you understand how Rush was able to do what she did with the limited resources she had. Because she refused to focus on the fact that they were "limited."

That mindset is ultimately the movie's overriding theme, and is well-captured in an early scene. Mother St. John, played by the great Ellen Burstyn, explains to Rush that there is no actual gym in which the team can practice, let alone play games. The only thing the school has to offer is a large, dusty-looking room that essentially has become a repository for junk.

We, the viewers, first get a look at it. Then we get the shot of Rush's reaction to it. You expect her to be crestfallen. But instead, you see her eyes light up with possibility, because she's seeing what it could be -- with work -- rather than what is. Which is how this character views life in general. It's an attitude that every coach who takes his or her team to see this movie will want their players to remember.

Speaking of players, they are not specifically portrayed as the people they were -- and still are -- in real life. Women's basketball fans who know the likes of Theresa Shank Grentz, Marianne Crawford Stanley, Rene Muth Portland -- all of whom went on to their own coaching success -- might at first be a little taken aback by not seeing the actual players' names used. But writer-director Tim Chambers opted to make the players in the movie more or less amalgams of the women who played at Immaculata.

I wouldn't just tell women's basketball players, coaches and fans to go see "The Mighty Macs." I'd tell anybody who wants a dose of inspiration. Male or female, sports fan or not.

That allows additional artistic freedom, and it keeps the focus more on Rush, whose real name is used. At the end of the movie, photos of some of the "real" Mighty Macs -- and descriptions of their post-Immaculata achievements -- are shown.

The biggest fictionalization in the movie is the character of Sister Sunday, who becomes Rush's de facto assistant. She didn't actually exist … at least not as one person. But Sister Sunday's quietly enthusiastic support of Rush and the team is intended to symbolize several of the people -- many of them nuns -- at Immaculata and in the community who got behind what Rush and the Macs were doing.

As played by Marley Shelton, Sister Sunday is not without some angst about her faith and commitment to the order, which is communicated by her wistful eyes and wry humor. Shelton quite effectively creates someone who seems like a real person even though her character actually isn't a real person.

Hayek portrays the Mighty Macs' player we get the most in-depth look at, and she went through her own trials during the making of the movie, as she battled Hodgkin's lymphoma. Hayek's Trish Sharkey is proud, smart and talented … but also from an impoverished family, which alternately fuels and threatens to derail her ambition.

Also notable is Kimberly Blair's character, Lizanne Caufield, who is in love and can't wait to get married … but then is devastated after her boyfriend dumps her. When the heartbroken girl doesn't show up for practice, Rush goes to talk with her and insists that Lizanne think about herself and say out loud some of her best attributes.

The first one Lizanne comes up with is so unexpectedly and sweetly funny that as she hesitantly goes through this process, you might find yourself simultaneously laughing and tearing up. And Rush never seems more empowering than she does with the heartfelt "pep talk" she gives Lizanne; the scene reminds viewers how crucial it is for women to build other women's self-esteem.

Gugino is equally effective as the demanding coach, the enabler of dreams, the worried-about-her-own-relationship wife, and the visionary.

Movie reviews often use the term "thankless" for certain characters, and perhaps you could say that for David Boreanaz's Ed Rush. He's stereotypically unsupportive of his wife's ambition at first, but eventually comes around in standard movie convention. But in the film's defense, it would be hard to juggle spending as much time on the realistic dynamics of the couple's marriage as is spent on the coach, her team and the school.

"The Mighty Macs" will resonate with people in some different ways, depending on their age. If you're old enough to recall the early 1970s, the film will bring back your memories of clothes, cars, hairstyles and music of that era. And it will also reinforce for you how far women's college athletics has come in a relatively short time.

If you weren't around then, you'll witness a very realistic portrayal of where women's sports was in that historically important year of 1972. The Macs won their first championship on March 19; three months later, Title IX would be signed into law.

As mentioned, everything that happens in the movie didn't happen exactly the same in real life. But the fictionalized elements are simply part of making the movie more watchable, as opposed to distorting the obstacles that Rush and the Mighty Macs faced on the way to accomplishing what they did.

This isn't a movie just for women's sports fans by any means. And while Rush's arrival at Immaculata coincides with the height of the women's liberation movement, it isn't a didactic film about feminism, per se. It does respectfully and unflinchingly spotlight some of the maddening obstacles women faced then, but its general theme is applicable to anyone: Commit fully with your heart to whatever you decide to do.

"The Mighty Macs," unlike a lot of movies, does the sports part right. But it does a lot else right, too.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.