There’s nothing quite like the drama (and, on occasion, trauma) of Olympic-level sports to rally even the most relaxed of audience members. When this year’s Winter Olympics — the 23rd in the contemporary iteration of the event — stages its opening ceremony this Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, it will herald in over two weeks of the very best that the athletic world has to offer. Even better: it’s all real.
But for those interested in cinematic renditions of stories of grit, determination, and often a metric ton of sequins, the movie world has provided a few choice picks. From the drama of such classics as “Downhill Racer” to the joy of “Cool Runnings” and the wacky happenstance of “I, Tonya,” check out eight solid gold picks for some Olympics-centric binge-watching below (if you can find the time during watching the actual events unfold in the coming weeks).
The current Oscar contender dramatizes the wild true story of iceskating champ Tonya Harding (Best Actress nominee Margot Robbie) and the insanely ill-fated criminal act that derailed her hopes of dominating the 1994 games. Directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), the rollicking narrative follows the wild real-life exploits of Harding as she claws her way to the top of the sport, despite a fraught personal life and a big-time bias against her “white trash” background. Hobbled by a dismissive mom (Best Supporting Actress nominee Janney) and her abusive and criminally stupid husband Jeff Gilloly (Sebastian Stan), Harding watches her hard work crumble after getting mixed up in a tabloid-ready story of human fallibility. Everyone knows what happened next: the attempted “whacking” (like, with a baton, not an actual murder) of her Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan that exploded the 24-hour news cycle and ended Harding’s career. But Gillespie’s film digs deeper to find the real human in the middle of the mess, a pitch-black comedy that indicts everyone, including Tonya. (It’s also not the only awards season feature to chronicle the dashing of Olympic dreams: Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game” also hinges on a key Olympic subplot. Consider a double feature?) Currently in theaters.
“The Price of Gold”
Before there was “I, Tonya,” there was Nanette Burstein’s ESPN 30 For 30 documentary “The Price of Gold,” which similarly explores what will always be the defining incident in Harding’s life. Burstein takes a subtle, insightful approach to the material, including contemporary interviews with Harding and other important talking heads. The documentary served as a major touchstone for many of the “I, Tonya” subjects, who watched it for both inspiration and motivation. It’s easy to see why. Available for purchase on Amazon.
“Blades of Glory”
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s this 2007 Will Ferrell and Jon Heder comedy from directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, which takes a mostly outsized idea — two men competing as a skating pair?! — and turns it into a weirdly clever send-up of the stranger elements of the competitive skating world. Populated by some eerily recognizable characters, like Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as a demented sibling skating pair and Craig T. Nelson as a gruff coach, the specifics of the film amuse, but the wacky relatability of it provides an added punch. This movie is silly, but damn if we don’t see people like this zipping and zinging around each and every Olympic-sized rink. (Of very important note: it’s not actually the Olympics portrayed in the film as the essential “big competition,” but the “World Winter Sport Games”; the jokes still land). Available for rent or purchase on Amazon or for rent or purchase on iTunes.
“The Cutting Edge”
A contemporary rom-com classic of the highest order, the 1992 original — written by Tony Gilroy! — has spawned a ton of knockoff sequels, including two meant to follow the exploits of the offspring of the star’s of the first film, but the Paul Michael Glaser feature remains the gold standard. It’s a classic romance, heightened by all the drama of a beautiful sport fully capable of killing even its most skilled practitioners (not to mention: ice skates are sharp). Moira Kelly and D.B. Sweeney exude the kind of ’90s-era chemistry so often lacking in today’s romances, made all the more biting by their initial disdain of each other and the wacky circumstances that throw them (an iceskating queen and an injured hockey player, naturally) together into one heck of a mismatched skating pair. Inevitably, they fall in love, but the film doesn’t skimp on the skating drama, building up into a major Olympic event that hinges on their ability to pull off an actually deadly stunt. Available to stream on Amazon Prime or Hulu.
Surely the most charming of all Winter Olympics films, Jon Turteltaub’s 1993 Disney hit vividly dramatizes the wild real-life story of the 1988 debut of Jamaica’s first-ever bobsled team. Told through a decidedly Disney lens, the film blends comedy, sports action, and a healthy dose of drama to deliver an inspirational and entertaining story about how making your own way in the face of tremendous adversity (not to mention super hot temperatures). Originally envisioned as a far darker film, “Cool Runnings” ultimately got moving once its script was changed to lean more into the feel-good and comedic elements of the real story, versus attempting a hard-and-fast biopic about the actual men who served on the team. It’s not all entirely true, but it’s all good. Available for rent or purchase on Amazon or for purchase or rent on iTunes.
A David and Goliath story that seems almost too good to be true (or, at least, too good not to have been written entirely for the screen), Gavin O’Connor’s stirring 2004 drama follows the initially insane quest of the U.S. hockey to defeat the Russian team at the 1980 Games. The Americans are scrappy, young, inexperienced, and headed up by a forward-thinking coach (the legendary Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell), who offers a very different philosophy on how they can win than they’re used to. Anything that could go wrong for the team did, from injuries to in-fighting, odds-making that placed them as huge underdogs, and a mish-mash cadre of players initially resistant to unifying as a single team. The actual hockey scenes are stellar, as are absolutely grinding depictions of the team’s many practices, all of it leading up to an eye-popping dramatization of that key final match. “Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!” Available for rent or purchase on Amazon and for rent or purchase on iTunes.
Michael Ritchie’s 1969 directorial debut — which was given the Criterion Collection treatment in 2009 — is an artful take on the sports drama genre and features Robert Redford in one of his earliest roles, a driven downhill racer who is obsessed with his life-long desire to be an Olympic champion. Yet all the trappings seemingly necessary to achieving that dream, from bonding with the team to dealing with overeager would-be sponsors, fail to excite Redford’s David Chappellet, and his singular desires take center stage. Ritchie deftly blends thrilling ski sequences with the minutiae of being a high-valued athlete to provide a full picture of athletic life that remains an indelible classic. (Small wonder that Roger Ebert called it “the best movie ever made about sports.”) Available for rent or purchase on Amazon.
Special Bonus: “Icarus”
Courtesy of Netflix
Bryan Fogel’s documentary isn’t exactly about the Winter Olympics, but its impact on this year’s games (and perhaps beyond) has so far been immeasurable. In December 2016, the I.O.C. began disciplinary proceedings against 28 athletes who represented Russia at the previous Winter Games; a year later, they banned the country from the event. The decision was at least partially aided by information provided by Dr. Grigory Rodchenko, a chemist who said he helped the Russian government execute a widespread doping scheme at the 2014 Winter Olympics before becoming a whistleblower. Fogle documented Rodchenko’s journey from state doctor to whistleblower in “Icarus,” which provides an unsettling look inside Russia’s sports complex. Available to stream on Netflix.