Personal Best April 10, 2020
2 Hrs., 4 Mins.
ersonal Best (1982) is a sprawling drama that, at first, seems like it
primarily will be about the romance between a couple of athletes, Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) and Tory Skinner (real-life professional Patrice Donnelly), both of whom are on a track-and-field team training for the 1980 Olympic Games. But the approach of writer-director Robert Towne, who was famously mercurial during its
making, is ultimately more Russian Doll-ish than that.
As the film opens, Chris is a fresh-faced and naïve athlete with an overbearing dad whom the older and more-experienced Tory takes under her wing. During the first act of Personal Best, they befriend one another; then, one evening, during a one-on-one hangout sprinkled with pizza and pot, they kiss. That evolves. The feature continues across several years (it spans 1976 to 1980) and watches as Chris and Tory’s relationship is slowly sandpapered by their athletic aspirations, among other things. The increasing turmoil can be blamed on their own one-track-mindedness (no pun intended) about the games in which they compete and also by the truth that they are unspokenly trying to outdo the other. In the middle of the movie, Chris receives an injury as a result of some equipment being moved. It’s left ambiguous whether Tory did the moving.
Other relationships come to the fore. Chris will have a brief dalliance with her and Tory’s bowl-haired coach, Terry (Scott Glenn), then start a more serious relationship with Denny (Kenny Moore), a swimmer. Personal Best clocks at a little over two hours but has the weightiness of an epic. The unhurried pace of it makes it feel as though four years have indeed passed, and that the characters would in fact grow this way. It has the unmistakable casualness and unpredictability of a lived life: nothing feels intended to result in a kind of contrived narrative development, like in a lot of sports movies. (The genre is typically obsessed with climactic, nail-biting finales that are worked toward for the entirety of the film, after all.) It’s more so things are happening to these people.
When it comes to features revolving around athletics, regardless of its main narrative thrust, it’s almost a given it be dubbed a sports movie. Yet I can’t quite bring myself to conclusively call Personal Best one, because sports seem almost beside the point in it. Personal Best is more so interested in the human body and the phenomena it’s capable of achieving when put through extremes. Scenes of training or competition have an anthropological feel; I didn't think about rankings or stakes when I watched them. Towne makes the at-first odd but then captivating (once we get used to it) choice to shoot the bodies of the competitors in slow motion and in close-up — framed here to be stared at like art objects, as if everything aside from them was moot. The cinematographer of the movie, Michael Chapman, painstakingly homes in on the sweat dripping off a body as a lap is run, the way veins pop when an athlete is leaping over a hurdle.
A conventional sports movie usually necessitates one or more energetically photographed scenes of competition that have the lift and propulsions of a thriller. What we see should excite us the way an action set piece, like a car chase or a gun battle, would; while watching them, we aren't meant to be thinking as much about physical tolls because winning is on the brain. But Towne, intriguingly, forgoes genre orthodoxies and makes a sports feature in which athletic prowess is in itself something to be marveled at, where the beginning, middle, and end of a game don't matter that much.
Personal Best isn't just visually inspired. What it’s also good at, aside from making tangible the feeling of an overtaxed body, is capturing the hurricane of emotions as experienced by its characters. Passion is an overriding force in the movie; how it affects the characters is tangled. Romantic and professional pushes are strong but, as we find out, it can be difficult to maintain both in a positive sense when they’re so tightly entwined. The actors get these characters right; Hemingway is especially good as a young woman we see grow from an innocent to someone much more self-assured and realistic.
The juxtaposition of the everyday and the larger than life is what makes
Personal Best have an unusual power; it's a sports movie where platitudes are turned inside out but is better for it. Towne treats the lives of these athletic juggernauts with a refreshing ordinariness not often seen, then presents their accomplishments so operatically by comparison that they seem doubly gifted. A gods walking among us sort of thing. The film is also a tragedy. Just before the real-life 1980 Olympic Games, the team the Tory and Chris characters were part of had their dreams dashed when the United States announced their boycott of the gathering, for political reasons. Personal Best accomplishes many things and well, but among the most impressive of its achievements is that is also functions, almost off-handedly, as a paean to the undersung and the could-have-beens. A-