“Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.”
Rudy is an excellent underdog movie, doing almost everything right and almost nothing wrong. On a technical level, as the sum of its parts, it’s very good, borderline great.
It’s also one of my favorite movies in the entire world. It has X-factor magic in spades, it’s genuinely uplifting, it strikes just about every “sentimental value” chord, and it’s one of three or four movies I make sure all of my friends and family have seen if they want to understand me.
Both of those — its appreciable craft and its personal value — are essential reasons that it’s been one of my three or so favorite movies literally as long as I can remember, and why it still stands up as I get older. So it’s appropriate, I think, for me to discuss the movie in both of those contexts.
Let’s start with its narrative and technical proficiency.
Rudy is the story of a small, weak, and mediocre athlete who has a dream to play on the Notre Dame football team. Considering he’s dyslexic and doesn’t have the grades to get into Notre Dame, nor a fraction of the talent required to get a scholarship on the team, this seems pretty much impossible at the outset.
The journey that Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger makes in this film is a dramatized version of a real story, and the sports drama (with bits of comedy) turns fact into worthwhile fiction.
The trick to making a good underdog movie is, like many challenges in life, simple but not easy. All you have to do is give your protagonist more and more conflict and opposition, but you always have to make it seem fair.
This is probably the biggest thing that Rudy has in its favor: It’s staunchly fair. Rudy’s goal of playing for Notre Dame is so patently ridiculous that the script doesn’t need to be particularly cruel or unbelievable.
With one exception (a high school counselor who won’t let Rudy take a college tour of Notre Dame because his grades aren’t good), everything that stands in Rudy’s way is fairly empathetic and reasonable.
When Rudy’s on the verge of running away to South Bend with no real plan, no money in his pockets, his father sits him down and tries to talk him out of the craziness. As any good dad should.
When Notre Dame won’t admit Rudy because he’s pulling average grades at a community college, it’s not a cruel twist of fate. It’s justifiable university policy.
Etc. Etc. Rudy has a huge mountain to climb, which is what makes this a good story. Any additional boulders falling out of the sky would just ruin the experience.
Rudy also doesn’t fall in the trap of making its hero too… well, heroic. Sean Astin, turning in an absolutely magnificent performance as the title character, manages to depict Rudy as an overeager little shit, yet still completely charming. Without that performance — that believable dichotomy — this movie doesn’t work.
The movie doles out its inspirational speeches and pats on the back sparingly, making those moments particularly magical and preventing the whole experience from feeling too treacly. When a scholarship athlete gets pissed off at Rudy for trying too hard on the practice squad, the movie (wisely) lets the coach chew out the other athlete rather than patting Rudy too hard on the back. It’s little moments like that that let Rudy keep some bite.
And — key to any good movie — there are a handful of really great scenes. Rudy’s lunch break on his birthday is a small scene, but a stunningly perfect one. And, while the football game at the end is rightfully the moment everyone remembers, I get nearly as many chills from the team captain turning in his jersey.
Beyond Astin, the acting is solid, if mostly unremarkable. My second favorite performance has always been Ned Beatty as Rudy’s dad, who lends a limited role plenty of comedy, compassion, and pathos. Charles S. Dutton is good as Rudy’s cynical boss and mentor, while Chelcie Ross is respectable as the curmudgeonly coach Dan Devine.
Of note: Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn both made their film debuts, Favreau as Rudy’s buddy and tutor, Vaughn as a fellow athlete. Favreau’s role is much more prominent and memorable; he exhibits the best comic timing of the cast.
David Anspaugh is a competent director, making no major mistakes but never quite stealing your breath with great framing or pacing. The best aspect of the direction is the comic pacing I think, as Anspaugh gives funny moments decent impact with quick cuts and well-timed pauses.
My biggest complaints with the movie come from a few story components that fall short of the rest of the movie. But even these are in the spirit of amping up the conflict and stakes: A plot thread about Rudy losing his girlfriend is closer to quarter-baked than half-baked, while his relationship with Vaughn’s jaded character, Jamie, never really clicks the way I think the script intends for it to.
Now, on to the reasons that I don’t like this movie, but adore it. (I suggest you listen to the above track — or the complete soundtrack if you have a few minutes — as you read the rest of this post.)
Simply, I believe this movie is magical. It’s motivational qualities are alchemical. I showed it to my roommate during my junior year in college, and he said it aptly: “If this movie doesn’t inspire you, nothing will.” I watch Rudy when I’m feeling especially down, and it always does the trick.
Next, the Notre Dame factor. Both of my parents went to Notre Dame. I was raised a Notre Dame fan. I watched their football games growing up. I wanted to go there forever. I even was accepted for admission.
There probably exists some alternate universe where I agreed to crippling student debt, cold weather, and long distance from home and attended Notre Dame. I probably enjoyed my college years much more in that universe.
One of my younger brothers, blessed with an extensive scholarship and a favorable FAFSA situation, is currently a senior at Notre Dame, and he loves it just as much as I imagined I would. I visited him a couple years ago, and felt a sort of phantom nostalgia of missed opportunity. I tell you, there’s an electric, welcoming atmosphere there that beckons tradition and romance and faith. It really feels like home, and I’ve only been there twice.
(When I was in high school, counselors encouraged us to take tours of all the schools we were applying to, because “when you find the right place, you just know.” I didn’t visit Notre Dame in high school. If I had, I don’t think I would have been able to go anywhere else.)
A significant reason I find Notre Dame so appealing is that I think it has the most beautiful college campus I’ve ever seen, especially in the fall before snow.
As I brought up with Forgetting Sarah Marshall in a previous Top 100 Everything entry, Rudy is simply a delight to look at. You have the gorgeous Indiana fall leaves, the gold paint in the helmets, the Grotto, Touchdown Jesus, the beautiful stadium. The collegiate look of the students and the campus feels authentic, not staged. This movie engenders a tiny but palpable bit of that Notre Dame magic in my soul.
Also, as has been the case repeatedly over this series, this movie has an excellent soundtrack that amplifies the atmosphere and impact of every part of the movie. Jerry Goldsmith crafts a classic theme, and ends up with an iconic film score. The “Tryouts” section is particularly perfect.
Lastly, there’s the sheer nostalgia factor. For as long as I can remember up until some time in high school or early college, I considered Rudy my favorite movie for many of the reasons listed above. It’s one of those things that’s just a part of me; I’ve been such an intense fan for so long.
In all, Rudy is both a very good movie and a personal favorite. It’s one I’ve been watching for 20 years, and it’s one I’ll keep watching for the rest of my life.