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Why Breaking Away is a Great American Movie
In June 1979, when I was 16, my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, picked me up from the DMV in south Minneapolis where I’d been filling out paperwork to get my first driver’s license, and asked if I wanted to go with him to a critics’ screening that night. I forget if he handed me a movie pass or a presskit but I remember the image on it: a diploma in a garbage can. I also remember the name of the movie: Breaking Away.
We saw it in one of the small critics’ screening rooms above the now-defunct Skyway Theater in downtown Minneapolis with about a half-dozen other critics in attendance. When you go to movies you generally go knowing first-act plot points (it’s about a down-on-his-luck boxer...), and, increasingly, second- and third-act plot points (...who fights for the heavyweight championship and goes the distance), but I went into this thing knowing nothing but the diploma in the garbage can. As a result, the movie unfolded for me in a way few movies have before or since.
Afterwards my father asked me what I thought and I responded warily. My father was not only a professional movie critic but my father—the man I’d been losing arguments to all of my life—but I told him I thought it was a pretty good movie. He tilted his head and sucked in a discontented breath. “Yeah,” he said. “But it begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies.” During the car ride home I turned this sentence over in my head. Why was this bad? Because it meant the film wasn’t consistent? Because Rocky itself was bad? Couldn’t you say that Rocky begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of boxing movies?
A month later, Breaking Away became the “sleeper” hit of the summer. Six months later, it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture and director, and it won best original screenplay for Steve Tesich, but today the movie is mostly seen the way my father saw it. It’s a liked movie. It’s sweet. It’s always in the mix whenever anyone talks about great sports movies. When the American Film Institute counted down its 100 greatest movies in both 1998 and 2008, it didn’t make the cut, but when the organization counted down its most inspiring movies, there it was at no. 8—four behind Rocky.
I think it’s more than that; I think it’s one of the greatest American movies ever made.
The film unfolds almost lazily. We see a quarry, then the woods around a quarry, then we hear someone singing with a country twang about the local A&P. Finally the singer and his three buddies, aimless 19 year-olds, wander into camera frame.
We don’t know it yet but the film’s major themes have just been introduced. The quarry is where working-class jobs were. The A&P is where working-class jobs have gone. But it’s a shit job and that’s why these four guys are aimless.
A year out of high school and they’ve already lost their identities. The tallest of the four, Cyril (Daniel J. Stern), all adenoidal voice, big, clumsy feet and pop-cultural references, once played basketball, hoped for a scholarship, and had a girlfriend named Delores. He didn’t get the scholarship, gave up the basketball, lost the girlfriend. Cyril tends to deal with pain through humor, so, by the quarry, he takes up a mock detective stance. “It was somewhere right along here that I lost all interest in life,” he says. “Ah ha! It was right here.” That’s where he saw Delores making out with a guy named Fat Marvin. Then he shouts into the void, mocking his own heartbreak: “Why, Delores, WHY!?!” His words echo but it’s the shortest of the four, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), who answers. “They’re married now,” he says quietly. Their peers are moving on. Life, for which Cyril has no professed interest, is already passing these guys by.
The unacknowledged leader of the group, Mike (Dennis Quaid), a star quarterback in high school, knows this and talks about getting out. He suggests road trips to Terre Haute and permanent trips to Wyoming. He knows life is bigger than their hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, but he’s too scared to go it alone. He’s like a Springsteen character without the guts. That’s why he told Cyril about his girlfriend Delores. And that’s why he gives Moocher shit about his girlfriend Nancy. Girls represent domesticity and Mike needs these guys free to help him get out. He knows the dead-end that awaits him if he stays. He articulates this as they watch the university football team practice:
You know what really gets me, though? I mean here I am, I gotta live in this stinkin’ town, and I gotta read in the newspapers about some hot-shot kid, new star of the college team. Every year it’s gonna be a new one. And every year it’s never gonna be me. I’m just gonna be Mike. Twenty-year-old Mike. Thirty-year-old Mike. Ol’ mean ol’ man Mike! These college kids out here are never gonna get old, or out of shape, cause new ones come along every year. They’re gonna keep calling us “cutters.” To them it’s just a dirty word. To me it’s just something else I never got a chance to be.
At this point we’ve heard the term “cutter” once, from one of the college kids, but it’s only later that we find out its meaning: townie. Specifically: the post-World War II generation that cut the stones that built, among other things, the university. Those jobs have dried up, but the term has become ubiquitous for anyone in town; anyone who’s not getting out.
What do you do if you’re a working-class kid in a university town that has no need for the working class? You wind up in the service sector. You work at the A&P, or—and this is the great fear—you directly service the university. You sell cars to the college kids, or you wash the cars of the college kids, or you police the squabbles between the townies and the college kids. Cutters are basically the niggers of Bloomington. These are the people who do our dirty work, and as a result we fear them, and reduce them to this epithet. Our guys know this. But it’s the fourth guy, Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who discovers an ingenious way out.
We watch movies, in part, to get away from ourselves, to hear about someone else for a change. And if the story is good enough, or wish-fulfillment enough, we want to be that person. That’s the exchange implicit in most movies. You give us your money and we’ll let you sit in the dark and pretend to be someone else for two hours.
Dave is both our own and his own wish fulfillment. He’s ours because he’s really good at something we’d like to be good at: bike racing. He’s his own, and humorously so rather than tragically so (cf. Billy Liar), because he’s pretending to be something he’s not: Italian. One imagines, as he got good at bike racing, as he became a fan of Team Cinzano, he adopted the rudiments of the Italian language and culture. Bravo! Bellissima! One also imagines a weight being lifted off him as a result: the weight of being himself. He’s the happiest person for most of the movie because he’s not Dave Stoller; he’s not a cutter. For centuries, Europeans escaped to America and forged new identities, but Dave is part of that generation for whom the American dream contracted and dried up. So he escapes to Europe—in his mind anyway—an idealized Europe. The situation is played for laughs but serious issues lie beneath it.
Breaking Away doesn’t have much of a plot (“I'm not a plot writer,” Tesich told The New York Times in 1982); instead it has tensions between individuals and groups. The most obvious of these are the tensions between the cutters, represented by our four guys, particularly Mike, and the college kids.
But the cutters have their own internal tensions. They may quit the A&P in solidarity with Mike, and they may follow him onto campus and into fights, but they’re already breaking away from him. Moocher gets closer to Nancy: at first denying she’s his girlfriend, then standing up for her, then quietly marrying her at the Monroe County Court House. Dave, in his head, is already gone, while Cyril is never quite there. Mike constantly tries to rally the troops but he resents having troops that need rallying, while they resent being rallied.
Then there are generational tensions. Cyril’s dad “understands” his son’s failures, while Moocher’s parents flee Bloomington for the promise of jobs in Chicago, leaving their son to sell the house by himself. But we only hear about these parents. The only parents we actually see are Dave’s.
Dave’s dad, Raymond (Paul Dooley), is a former stone-cutter who owns a used-car lot that services the college kids—he gives the cars cheesy, collegiate names like “Magna Cum Laude”—and after work he brags about how he schnookered this one or that one; how these college kids ain’t that smart after all. Of course he can’t abide his son’s Italian’s fixation but that’s not the real source of tension between the two of them. Hell, the real source of tension isn’t even between the two of them; it’s within the one. Raymond has internalized Bloomington’s class issues—us vs. them—but he knows that for his son to succeed he needs to become them. The situation is, again, played for laughs, but serious issues lie beneath it. Here he argues with his wife, Evelyn (Barbara Barrie):
Raymond: He used to be a smart kid. I thought he was going to go to college.
Evelyn: I thought you didn’t want him to go to college.
Raymond: Well why should he go to college? When I was 19, I was working at the quarry 10 hours a day.
Evelyn: Most of the quarries are closed.
Raymond: Yeah, well, let him find another job.
Evelyn: Jobs are not that easy to find.
Almost everyone in the film has a monologue. Dialogues, like the above, may be comedic but monologues are serious. Mike’s “Mean ol’ man Mike” speech best represents the younger-generation dilemma—the epithet we’re called is the job we can’t even get—but it’s Raymond’s monologue, representing the original cutters, that is the speech of the movie. No one looks at countries and cultures with fresher eyes than foreigners: de Tocqueville on America, Hemingway and Baldwin on France, and, yes, I would argue, Steve Tesich, born in Yugoslavia and an immigrant to the U.S. at the age of 14, on the America of Bloomington, Indiana. Here, father and son go for a stroll through the university campus:
I cut the stone for this building. I was one fine stone cutter. Mike’s dad, Moocher’s, Cyril’s. All of us. Well, Cyril’s dad, never mind.
Thing of it was, I loved it. I was young and slim and strong. I was damn proud of my work. And the buildings went up! When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings was too good for us. Nobody told us that. Just felt uncomfortable that’s all. Even now I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone... I just feel out of place.
Yes, Breaking Away is sweet. Dave romances a pretty co-ed named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), whom he calls “Katerina,” and serenades her beneath her sorority window with “M’appari Tutt Amor,” from the Italian opera “Martha.” Yes, Breaking Away is inspirational. Dave’s heroes, Team Cinzano, come to Indiana, and he trains for the race on the freeway, memorably drafting behind a truck at 60 miles an hour. Yes, his dreams come crashing down when a member of Team Cinzano, unable to abide this American upstart with the bad Italian accent, sticks a bike pump between his spokes and he loses the race (“I guess you’re a cutter again,” Mike tells him afterwards); but the movie ends with the Little 500 bike race, where the underdogs, the cutters, take on the college boys, and, against all odds, win.
Inspiring. At the same time, I can’t recall a more profound admission about the American class system in a Hollywood movie than the one Dave’s dad makes above. This country was built by people who aren’t welcome here.
Each time I watch Breaking Away I fear I’ll see the movie through my father’s eyes, but each time it only gets better. Each time, too, I fall in love with a new scene. This summer it was the scene after Dave meets Katherine. He’s biking through the woods, and light is shining through the trees, and we hear the instrumental strains of the song, “M’appari Tutt Amor,” with which he’ll serenade her later in the movie. It’s an aimless scene but you get the sense of things beginning. Dave is young and slim and strong, and he’s good at what he does, and he’s in love. And he spreads his arms wide to take in the world.
In the most basic sense my father was right. Breaking Away begins like a character study, and it ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies, because Steve Tesich’s script was originally two scripts: one about cutters, the other about the Little 500 race. He couldn’t sell either script. So he combined them. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Strawberry Fields Forever” began as two songs and that turned out pretty well.
The movie never really answers its fundamental question. What does the working class in a post-industrial society do? In the aftermath of their Little 500 victory, the cutters simply do what the downtrodden have always done. They lay claim to their epithet. Dave’s dad changes the name of his used-car lot from “Campus Cars” to “Cutter Cars,” while Dave, who embraced one false identity (Italian) to overcome another (cutter), winds up where he was meant to be: at college. But we never see Mike or Moocher or Cyril again. We can only guess what happens to them.
When Tesich arrived in this country in the late 1950s, he learned English through television, through sitcoms, and you can argue the film has a sitcom quality to it—particularly its ending. On campus Dave meets a pretty French girl and soon they’re biking, talking the Tour de France, and he’s using Frenchisms as he once used Italianisms. When he sees his father, he shouts out, happily, “Bon jour, papa!” and the father looks back, startled, horrified, and the camera freezes. Cue rimshot. At that point, though, we begin to hear the Indiana University fight song, and the freeze-frame fades into a shot of the Monroe County Court House, and a graphic informs us: FILMED ENTIRELY IN BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA. No shit. The film is steeped in the place. It also uses obvious locals for bit parts—the postman, the stone cutters hanging at the plant, the old woman on her porch—but nothing says “Indiana” like this ending, which refuses to take itself too seriously. There’s something very Midwestern, very American, about that.
Breaking Away was released more than 30 years ago but it’s never felt more relevant. Moocher can’t sell his parent’s house, jobs aren’t easy to find, there’s trouble in the Middle East. One can argue that jobs are never easy to find and there’s always trouble in the Middle East. But it’s more. I spent the summer of 2010 looking for a car, and many of the car salesmen I met hadn’t been salesmen long. This one had been an event planner but jobs dried up. That one had been a professional photographer but in the digital age he was rendered irrelevant. Then there’s me.
I first saw Breaking Away with my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, in the summer of 1979, a time when journalism and movie criticism seemed like stable occupations. No longer. Newspapers everywhere are folding. Movie critics are being let go. We thought Breaking Away was about them but it’s really about us. We’re all cutters now.
—August 5, 2010