Breaking good, eventually
by David Benjamin
“I was sure I was going to get that scholarship. My dad of course was sure I wasn’t. When I didn’t, he was real understanding, you know. He loves to do that. He loves to be understanding when I fail.”
— Cyril, in Breaking Away
MADISON, Wis.— Movie scenes haunt me.
The other day, America’s current confluence of cultural warfare, social strife and political paralysis brought to mind a scene from the 1979 film, Breaking Away.
The movie’s set in a Rust Belt outpost — Bloomington, Indiana. One character, Moocher, played by the splendid Jackie Earle Haley, is undersized, scrawny and almost operatically scruffy. He lives alone in a crumbling clapboard house. His father — an aging stonecutter left jobless by the collapse of Bloomington’s limestone industry — has fled to Chicago, to scrounge for work. Desperate for a little money to help out, Moocher takes a job at a car wash.
In this scene, Moocher’s sidekicks, Dave (Dennis Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid) and Cyril (Daniel Stern), drop him off reluctantly at the car wash, urging him not to surrender his freedom and actually report to work. But Moocher is determined — right up ’til his new boss hands him a time card, calls him “Shorty” and orders him to “punch in.”
Moocher takes the cue, walks over to the time-clock, rears back and delivers a haymaker that leaves it in smithereens. His comrades cheer, Moocher kisses his crummy job goodbye and climbs back into the car. Mike burns rubber as Moocher’s erstwhile employer stands seething.
This prescient clip — 38 years old now — foreshadowed the anger and frustration that became a national upheaval in 2016. Moocher, Dave, Mike and Cyril are the forsaken white males of flyover country. Their childhood in Bloomington has witnessed the demise of a proud local — stonecutting — trade that afforded their blue-collar forebears a comfortable middle-class life. They’ve graduated from high school, but they’re stuck on the outside, looking resentfully in, at a great university — in their hometown — where they don’t seem to belong.
The frat boys of Indiana U. — creased, cool and confident — are a living, constant counterpoint to the dead-end prospects of local kids, dismissively referred to as “cutters.” The students drive better cars, wear nicer clothes, sport bigger muscles and date sorority chicks. They have a future in an educated, corporate world beyond Bloomington that seems a million miles away from the four bewildered cutters.
As Mike, in one of the film’s many poignantly ironic exchanges, says, “They’re gonna keep callin’ us ‘cutters.’ To them, it’s just a dirty word. To me, it’s just somethin’ else I never got a chance to be.”
Another turning point in Breaking Away is Dave’s moment of hard truth. Until then, his wry defense against reality is an alter ego. To his father’s dismay, Dave poses as an Italian bicyclist, speaking pidgin Italian, memorizing arias, convincing an IU coed that he’s an Italian student and even fooling himself. Dave doggedly sustains this romance until the Cinzano team arrives in Indiana. During an exhibition road rally, Dave keeps pace with the Italian pros and tries to make conversation. The grizzled pros greet his hero-worship by scuttling his bike. They laugh and curse as Dave lies bleeding in a ditch.
These two scenes — Moocher’s defiance and Dave’s heartbreak — punctuate the movie, but don’t end it. It’s a comedy, after all. Director Peter Yates has gotten us to like these boys and we want to pull for them. So, given a chance to redeem themselves in IU’s “Little 500” bicycle race, the Cutters regroup.
Moocher, Dave, Mike and Cyril, at the worst moment in their lives, turn their rage and confusion into resolve. During the race, Dave — who was supposed to solo the entire Little 500 — crashes. Clumsily and comically, his three friends become emergency cyclists. Driven by necessity and love, they lift one another and engage with a world that they saw before as baffling, forbidding and impenetrable.
The race’s outcome offers viewers a handy climax, but it’s ultimately beside the point. Breaking Away, as the title suggests, is about cracking our shells and escaping our fears.
In 1979, moviegoers readily accepted a film about working-class kids swallowing their anger, overcoming economic hardships and battling impossible odds. We bought the premise because we’d seen the story all our lives among friends and family. We’d seen it play out on a grand scale when Americans joined to lift ourselves from the Great Depression, when we formed a global alliance to win World War II and spent our treasure to succor the war’s survivors, and when we defined our nation as the “golden door” through which anyone in trouble could enter and find, here in America, freedom, opportunity, sympathy and hope.
Today, I fear, we’d need to script a new ending. In the 2016 Breaking Away remake, the Cutters wouldn’t get a chance to prove themselves. Fictional liberals on the IU faculty would hate them for being white and ban them from the race. Instead of taking the SAT and starting college, Dave and Cyril would break bad, sinking into a cycle of part-time jobs in the daytime and nightly drinking at a local dive. Instead of marrying his girlfriend and starting fresh in Chicago, Moocher would beat her ’til she abandons him. After that, he’d nurse a hydrocodone habit and spend his waking hours surfing alt-right websites for assurance that none of his misery is his own fault. And Mike, instead of hugging his policeman brother at the end of the movie, would instead get arrested by said brother. In prison, Mike would join the Aryan Brotherhood.
At the end, the Cutters would reunite at a Trump rally. The final shots would show them chanting “Lock her up!” and gang-molesting a girl reporter from CNN.
I know. Sounds like a rotten movie.
It is. Nobody would make it. Not only would it be more depressing than Easy Rider, it wouldn’t ring true. It would defy the basic principle that Americans — when we’re true to ourselves — help. No matter how low we’ve sunk, how much we’ve bickered, backstabbed and wracked one another’s feelings, no matter how sorry we feel for our poor, poor, pitiful selves, we remember our better angels, bind our wounds, and find a way back.
Always, we go that way together.