24 LIes a Second: Match Pair

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Match Pair

There may well have been papers written on the curious nature of the sports-cinema interface. As I have noted in the past, there's really only one-way traffic when it comes to this sort of thing – making a film about a famous athlete or sporting event seems logical in a way that reenacting the plot of, say, Logan's Run during a football match does not – but even beyond this it seems to be the case that some sports lend themselves to having movies made about them much more readily than other.

Take football (so-ker, as I believe it is known in former colonial lands) – probably the most popular sport in the world today, but genuinely good movies about it are about as frequent as Gary Lineker getting a red card (oh, yes, I can do topical jokes). When I think of football movies, the first one springing to mind is Escape to Victory, in which Michael Caine leads a team of footballing PoWs (including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, and Pele, with Sylvester Stallone in goal) to a 5-4 win over a side of Nazi all-stars. (I imagine in a few years people will be inclined to dismiss the very existence of Escape to Victory as some sort of mass hallucination. Hear me, children of posterity: this film really does exist.)

Where were we? Oh yes, sports films, specifically good ones. It may be due to the nature of storytelling, but the true-life sports film in particular seems to be more successful when it deals with the individual disciplines, like athletics or boxing. Or, indeed, tennis, which is why we've had two tennis-themed dramas this autumn – the first being Borg Vs McEnroe (which happened to slip through the 24LAS net), the second Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

The film is set in the early 1970s (the temptation to go overboard with the crazy seventies styles is thankfully resisted), and opens with US tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) leading a breakaway group of women players after the disparity in prize money between them and their male counterparts simply becomes too great to be tolerable. The formation of the WTA results, a politically-charged step given the atmosphere of the day and the appearance of the Women's Liberation movement.

Amongst those reacting to this is middle-aged former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a pathological gambler and tennis hustler who sees the opportunity to potentially score a big payday and attract some serious publicity by challenging and then defeating one of the top female players. But King is reluctant to participate, rightly suspecting that what Riggs has in mind is a circus rather than a sporting event. But then events conspire to force her to change her mind...

I'm not sure how well remembered the Battle of the Sexes match would be were it not for the fact that this is the second movie to come out about it in the space of a few years (a documentary, also called Battle of the Sexes, appeared in 2013). You can see why the makers of this film might consider it rather fortuitous that it's coming out at this particular time: we are having a bit of a cultural moment when it comes to the notion of gender relations, with Hollywood engaged in some uncomfortably public house-clearing that is bound to leave it more inclined to honour films with an ostensibly feminist theme next awards season.

Then, of course, there are the ongoing aftershocks from a non-tennis-related battle of the sexes which was concluded in November last year. In the movie, at least, Riggs is presented as an outrageous man-baby with a narcissistic streak a mile wide, prone to making the most outrageous public pronouncements, enthusiastically adopted by an establishment mostly comprised of middle-aged white men. The prominence of a subplot about King's burgeoning romance with her hairdresser (played by Andrea Riseborough), not to mention the presence of a character, played by Alan Cumming, who basically represents the Spirit of Gayness, might also lead one to suspect that this is intended as an on-the-nose piece of allegorical agitprop about America today rather than in 1973.

However, perhaps thankfully, the film itself is a rather subtler and warmer piece of work than that, much more concerned with characters than ideology. It's quite a long time into the film before the idea of the titular clash really becomes central to the story – prior to this it is much more about the formation of the WTA and King's relationship issues, intercut with various escapades involving Riggs – Stone plays it all straight, so to speak, but Carell is pretty much off the leash in comic scenes such as one where Riggs turns up to a meeting of Gamblers' Anonymous and tries to organise a card school amongst the attendees.

The ingrained prejudice and sexism of the time is presented in a relatively subtle manner, for all that it's more or less non-stop. What's interesting, though, is that the film-makers don't really seem interested in crucifying Riggs as the misogynist he purported to be – maybe it's just Carell's performance, but he does remain weirdly likeable, in a Jeremy Clarkson-ish way (NB I'm aware your Clarkson tolerance may be different to mine), and the film does imply it's just a pose he adopts to win more publicity. The real ire of the film is reserved for the head of the US tennis association (played by Bill Pullman), who's a thorough-going patronising chauvinist, and to some extent Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), who's depicted as some sort of religious bigot.

In the end the film's story is resolved in the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and naturally I will not spoil the result for you (that's Wikipedia's job). The slightly crazed nature of the event is evoked well. The weird thing is, though, that after over ninety minutes of build-up, in a movie actually named after it, the Battle of the Sexes match actually feels quite anticlimactic, not being filmed especially imaginatively or dramatically. This is a sports movie which is not particularly adept at handling sport.

(Oh, go on, then, one spoiler, maybe: something the film doesn't even acknowledge the existence of are various suggestions that Riggs, who was allegedly heavily in debt to the Mafia, rigged the match in order to square things with them. Then again, this is still quite controversial even today.)

On the other hand, Battle of the Sexes is a movie which treats tennis as the backdrop for wider issues – some of these are to do with issues of equality and freedom of personal expression, but it's also about the people involved. It does take a while to get to the King-Riggs clash, but in general the writing and performances are more than good enough to make it extremely watchable and entertaining. Given the state of things currently, I would say this is a film with a very good chance of picking up trophies itself next spring.

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