Structurally, Michael Ritchie's 1968 skiing flick Downhill Racer is similar to a lot of other inspirational sports dramas. The main character experiences a variety of ups and downs in his personal life, working his way through a series of increasingly difficult athletic challenges on the way to The Big Event in the closing moments. The key difference is that Downhill Racer has a far more cynical outlook on what all of this means. It gives us a hero who only cares about being a winner, and then goes on to suggest that being a winner doesn't matter. This is a film that regards the inspirational speeches and victory dances of competitive sports with a weary sigh. As medals are raised to the sky, the film scoffs and asks: “Who cares?”
Our enigmatic protagonist is David Chappellet (Robert Redford, Spy Game), an American downhill skier who is flown into Switzerland to join the American ski team. The team is coached by Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman, The French Connection), who attempts to instill a spirit of teamwork, cooperation and unity in his group. Chappellet isn't interested in any of that. He had a fairly solitary childhood in rural Colorado, and being part of a team just isn't his thing. He just wants to win. This attitude doesn't fly too well with Claire, but Chappellet's talent is too considerable to ignore, and he quickly becomes one of the team's most valuable members.
Redford has always been a subtle actor – using the the smallest of gestures to convey his feelings – but he's so quietly mysterious in Downhill Racer that he becomes nearly unreadable. What's going on in this guy's head? We see him act like a heartless jerk, and then see him grow frustrated when someone treats him the same way. His social and emotional life is a mess, but he quickly shoves all of his feelings aside when it's time to race. The only thing we know for sure is that he wants to win, but he doesn't even seem to know why. In one scene, Chappellet's father (Walter Stroud) wonders why anyone would want to become a successful skier if there's no big payday at the end. “I'll be famous. I'll be a champion,” Chappellet insists. “World's full of 'em,” the father grumbles.
You won't find many sports movies among the films of the American New Wave, but Downhill Racer is very much in line with the bleak philosophy of movies like Easy Rider, Bonnie & Clyde and The Long Goodbye. It bitterly questions the things Americans have chosen to value in life, though James Salter's terrific script ensures that it does so without coming across like the heavy-handed work of a jaded grad student. In many ways, it serves as a companion piece to Ritchie's excellent The Candidate, spotlighting a man who only seeks victory because that's what America has taught him to do. There's no actual substantial goal in mind beyond winning. “What's next after this?” reporters keep asking Chappellet. “I don't know,” he always replies.
The film has a distinctive look, as Ritchie shoots the movie as if it's a fly-on-the-wall documentary intercut with slick, polished skiing footage worthy of an Olympic games broadcast. The racing sequences benefit from spectacular outdoor photography (a whopping eight photographers are highlighted in the opening credits), and the sport's balance between reckless energy and refined grace is well-captured. The dialogue scenes are shot with a quiet intimacy – we constantly feel as if we're eavesdropping on these people. The actors are a combination of movie stars, lesser-known character actors and non-actors, but everyone feels convincing and naturalistic (the standout turn comes from Hackman, essaying a more impotent version of the sort of calm, confident authority figure he played so often).
Like its central character, Downhill Racer isn't an easy movie to “solve.” That's part of what makes it (and so many other downbeat American movies of the era) so compelling: it's more interested in capturing a hard-to-define feeling than in offering a conclusive message. There's a deep-rooted streak of uncertainty lurking in this film; a suspicion that the earnest platitudes we so eagerly take to heart are ultimately hollow. Chappellet is not a particularly good person, but he's good at what he does and knows it. His story is not a rags-to-riches tale of inspirational achievement, but the story of an aimless-but-gifted athlete who pursues lofty goals for reasons he doesn't really understand. The sheer emptiness of this man sticks with you.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: M
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 1969