I grew up in a Notre Dame household. My parents met there as students, my brother went there, and my younger sister wants to go there when she graduates high school. As a practicing Catholic teenager obsessed with football, being a fan of Notre Dame became a big part of my personality. I’m not the only person with this experience — Notre Dame football has such a widespread and enthusiastic following that it’s the lone Division 1 football program that can support itself without a conference. Much of that popularity derives from Notre Dame being the premier Catholic university in the US, and certainly the premier Catholic college sports program in the US.
I bring up my Catholic background and my connection to Notre Dame, because I view Rudy as a quasi-religious text. I know that probably sounds a little bit silly (maybe not if you’ve ever known any diehard sports fans). But it is something I treated with a reverent devotion. It was my first favorite film, and the one that had the biggest influence on me. It topped every “Favorite Movie” list I made until I was 25 years old. One year, when prompted with my identifying my favorite films on a personal survey, I wrote: “Rudy… now and forever,” as if it were a gospel. The Book of Ruettiger.
And then there’s the film itself, which has all sorts of religious tones to it, even though the majority of it isn’t about religion at all. Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger — depicted in a plucky, good-natured performance by Sean Astin — regards Notre Dame football with a zeal that borders on the fanatical. He views it as his higher purpose in life. When he is lifted, figuratively and literally, in the movie’s closing moments, it’s shot as an ascent to the clouds, a choir singing a soaring tune in the background. It’s a movie that invokes the divine via football.
The movie traces Rudy’s path to joining the Notre Dame football team: from a scrub on a local high school team, through academic struggles, through seemingly insurmountable odds of making the team as a “walk-on,” to the even more impossible quest to “run out that tunnel” and suit up for a game.
Rudy — the movie and character — has a laser focus on this pursuit. Literally every plot point and character deepens or colors that goal. As I was growing up, this specific cinematic vision and theme provided a template for me to think about pursuing my own ambitions: achievable only by relentless pursuit and doggedness, regardless my disadvantages and inconveniences. Over decades, this film was an inspiration to me; a moral code, even.
Thus, it feels strange for me to consider it as a film qua film. It is like asking me to review my childhood pet dog, Ruff. Sure, he had issues… but he was still mine. I grew up with him, and he’s a part of how I think about my life story. He was just a dog, but he also helped me grow up to become the person that I am. That supersedes everything else. (To extend this already laborious simile… the dog my family got after Ruff passed away we named Rudy.)
Rudy is directed by David Anspaugh, whose only other widely-watched film is another underdog sports story, Hoosiers. But Rudy is his opus: Nearly every moment has resonance and beauty, much of that from the setting. Rudy is shot mostly in and around the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, and Anspaugh captures it in all its autumnal, Midwest glory.
The film conveys a reverence for the University of Notre Dame that stirred my heart as a child. The University is filmed and discussed as a promised land. For young me, this was inspiring, but it might be off-putting to anyone not inclined to cheer, cheer for ol’ Notre Dame. Rudy has no bones romanticizing the almost mythic profile of Notre Dame football. It’s especially visible in the colors. Every shot of the football team has those beautifully glinting gold helmets, as if halos on the players. The uniforms are a deep, satisfying blue, and the field glows with saturated, turfy greens.
The football scenes are quite good. There’s a physicality to them, such that it almost never occurs to me when I watch that it is staged. It’s just football. And the gameday scenes really feel like they’re happening at a massive college game — which makes sense, as they were shot there.
Astin anchors the movie, but he’s got a strong supporting cast backing him up: Ned Beatty walks a perfectly fine line as kind-hearted but regressive blue-collar dad; Charles S. Dutton delivers some spine-rattling one-liners and monologues as Rudy’s janitorial boss; and Jon Favreau (the now-massively successful Disney director) has a snarky turn as Rudy’s best friend.
Above and beyond everything else — the focused script, lovely location photography, solid acting — the single formal element that stands out about Rudy is its lovely score by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith captures the film’s idealism in tuneful, romantic strokes; it evokes longing and belief but not dreaminess. The instrumentation features a bunch of wind instruments playing huge fanfares. It’s the quintessential “inspirational” music, emotionally stirring and overwhelming without ever cloying.
The score stands out most strongly during two of the film’s key scenes: the walk-on tryouts — Rudy’s make-or-break trial; and the football game at the climax — his apotheosis. Both are iconic moments of the film, massively elevated by the emotional texture of Goldsmith’s score. The movie’s final few minutes always make me cry, and that’s, like, 90% attributable to the beautiful music.
Not every part of the movie clicks: A couple of moments have never felt quite right to me, like the scene where Rudy finds out he made it into Notre Dame from a letter, which is shot oddly distant and ambiguously. A couple of plot threads fizzle, like a bit about a high school girlfriend who ditches Rudy for his brother. Scott Benjaminson plays another of Rudy’s brothers, the main thematic antagonist to Rudy, and his grumpy performance is a dud.
But the flaws truly are minor. If you are able to buy into its shamelessly sentimental sports underdog wavelength, it will absolutely bowl you over with its storytelling. Emotionally manipulative? Perhaps. But sometimes, it feels good to have your heartstrings pulled by cinema. It can make you feel sensations and believe truths in a way that real life can’t.
Or maybe it’s just me. After all, this is a movie that speaks to me on a spiritual, almost molecular level; a movie with layers upon layers of nostalgic meaning and emotional profundity to me personally. For me, it is the single most inspiring film ever made. For that reason, and for so many others, I can give it no rating other than “masterpiece.”
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100