All the Right Moves (1983) dir. Michael Chapman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Craig T. Nelson, Lea Thompson, Christopher Penn
“All the Right Moves” is a great sports movie, because, well, it’s not really about sports. Before “Friday Night Lights” there was “All the Right Moves” – not so much a film about the sport of high school football, but the effect of football on its characters. It features a solid Tom Cruise performance, an important film in his career, one which showcases the tremendous star power and acting skills of a man who would soon be a mega-movie-star.
Stefan Djordjevic lives in Ampipe, a dreary Pennsylvania town named after its primary local business, American Pipe and Steel. He seems to have it all, a star cornerback for his high school football team, a beautiful girlfriend and a supportive family. Unfortunately the self-imposed pressure to leave the town for bigger and better things causes him to make some bad decisions which threaten his chances for a coveted college scholarship. He continually butts heads with the ball-busting coach (who else, but Craig T. Nelson) and many of the obsessed townsfolk who live and breathe football.
For a film which combines two cliché-heavy genres (sports and high school), “All the Right Moves” remarkably avoids almost most of these clichés. Sure, it’s familiar teritory, but each character makes intelligent choices without the pressure of artificially creating drama and conflict through cliché.
For example, Stefan has just been kicked off the team, and he takes out his anger on his girlfriend in front of a number of her friends. It’s an embarrassing moment which angers Lisa. Of course, Stefan’s in the doghouse. At this point in the film I expected a break-up which, according to screenwriting 101, would further his despair, thus causing more conflict etc etc. But an intelligent and rational conversation between the two the next day patches things up. As well, when we first meet Lisa, I immediately deduced that Stefan would cheat on her at some point in the film. He never does. Though he has his faults, Stefan doesn’t become the ego-football maniac we expect him to be.
In fact one of the most truthful aspects of the film is Stefan's clearly defined goals. He aspires to get a scholarship and play college ball, not to make the NFL, or get rich, but to get an education and become an engineer and do the work of his family with greater creative satisfaction. We learn this right off the top, and so we know Stefan is not just another sports cliché.
"All the Right Moves" is not just a Tom Cruise movie either, there's some major talent behind the camera which adds some extra prestige. It's the directing debut of Michael Chapman, the great DOP who shot some of the early Martin Scorsese pictures - "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull". And Chapman hired the great Dutch cinematographer Jan de Bont ("Basic Instinct") to lens the film, one of his first American movies. It's not the glossy style we would see in his later work, but he gives us a flawlessly composed, classic widescreen look.
Style would be all wrong here. The environment of the town is important to the story and the look. Chapman and de Bont shoot the film in the fall, mainly because that’s football season, but because the falling leafs, dulled autumn colours and permanent cloud cover establish the tone. And looming over everything is the gargantuan steel factory with it’s elaborate piping, smoke stacks and blackened exterior. It acts like a gothic castle from a horror film weighing heavily on it's characters.
The working class milieu is dramatized with the same authenticity as Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” (1979). Like that film, many of the townsfolk are of Polish or eastern European descent. And so, without overt reference, underpinning the main story is a commentary on the death of the American dream. We all know what happened to many cities like this in the 80’s. The industry that fueled towns like Ampipe fled for abroad leaving a number of ghost-like towns dotting the American industrial landscape.
Look past some really cheesy and dated 80’s music and you’ll see “All the Rights Moves” as one of the most honest and truthful films about high school football – and in my opinion a step above Peter Berg’s muscular, bravado-heavy dramatization of “Friday Night Lights.” Enjoy.