Redford hits the sweet spot with 'Bagger Vance'

by John Teti | 11/7/00 6:00am

Not many directors dare to make a movie about golf. It's hard work to make the game work for the cinema -- there can be drama in a golf match, but it is a drama that develops slowly, ploddingly over the four hours required by a typical 18-hole round.

Compare this to football, in which four hours contain countless shifts in momentum, tense fourth-down moments and the like. This is why you get a new permutation of "The Contenders" and "Remember the Titans" every year, but "Happy Gilmore" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance" about once a decade.

But golf is a complex, intriguing game -- it just takes a little effort to bring that out on the screen without putting your audience to sleep. Director Robert Redford comes as close as I've ever seen to this ideal.

"Bagger Vance" is actually the story of the unfortunately-named Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a Savannah native who was destined to be a national golf star until World War I came along and traumatized the poor thing. When he returns, he is too shaken to accept the hero's welcome that awaits him, instead going into hiding and settling into a lifestyle of late-night card games and plenty of liquor.

Meanwhile, the country slips into a depression of its own, and Junuh's former girlfriend, Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), decides to fill the time by holding a $10,000 tournament at her late father's country club.

The spectacular tournament is between golf greats Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen (Joel Gretsch and Bruce McGill) -- and, of course, the Savannah native Junuh. Junuh has "lost his swing," though, and he needs help from the mysterious golf sage Bagger Vance (Will Smith).

Damon's performance in the first half of the movie as the drunken and disheveled Junuh is weak, but he hits his stride as Junuh transforms into a clean-shaven, gracious and elegant gentleman that is more suitable to Damon's image and style. Theron follows the opposite arc, with a convincingly independent and self-assured persona at the beginning of the story melting too easily and too quickly into a weepy elbow grabber by the end.

Smith and J. Michael Montcrief -- who plays Hardy Greaves, Junuh's forecaddie -- both play familiar stereotypes. Smith is the wise old Depression-era black man, and Moncrief is the wide-eyed, nave Depression-era white boy. Smith is restrained by the screenplay from adding much depth to his character, but he performs admirably with what he has. The formerly unknown Moncrief is a surprise, rarely falling into the trap of playing a moment just for cuteness.

That phrase, "he lost his swing," is repeated more often than necessary. Redford is ensuring that you don't miss his already obvious metaphor -- golf for life. Bagger Vance speaks of a "natural swing that can't be learned, that can only be remembered." It's a bit much, and you can't help but wince as Smith delivers his lines in that Old-South-wisdom intonation.

I kept wishing Redford would get back to the golf. And when he did, there were some great moments. The cinematography of the course was always beautiful, but especially when Vance tells Junuh how to "see the field." Then we were treated to Junuh's perspective in which the spectators, officials and other periphery disappeared, leaving only the serene golf course.

These are moments of Zen -- in the Buddhist sense, not the "Daily Show" sense. In fact, much of Bagger Vance's wisdom has a distinctly Eastern mentality to it -- an odd pairing with Redford's theme of a man and his duty in life. It's interesting to watch Redford integrate a non-Western belief system as Junuh "finds his swing" and slowly makes amends with both his golf game and Miss Invergordon.

Redford generally avoids the issues of race and elitism in golf, and thankfully so. He touches upon Vance's restriction to the role of caddy as a black man in 1930s golf, but subtly and briefly. Junuh is far from affluent, but his match against the well-bred Jones and Hagen is never portrayed as class warfare.

"Bagger Vance" is much better for not dealing with the elitism piece. Redford was trying to make a movie about personal integrity. Entering into concerns of class stratification -- which would have been extremely easy to do in a movie set during the Great Depression -- would have muddled the film's message.

It would be easy to dismiss "Bagger Vance" as just another sports movie. But the themes at work in the film function separately from golf. In its conscious attempt to avoid the quagmire of golf's politics, "Bagger Vance" incorporates beautiful visuals and a calm, slow-moving story that showcase only the simple beauty and serenity of the game.

Ironically, by making a movie that's not really about the culture of golf, Redford has made a great movie about the game of golf.