I’m not an avid golfer. Few black men are. I’ve occasionally found myself at Rancho Park, a municipal course in west Los Angeles, just across Pico Boulevard from the 20th Century Fox studios. I grew up nearby and visited my parents in the vicinity until they retired to the high desert.
About five years ago, while aiming to knock a ball from the fairway onto the green, a wag in a car whizzed by on Pico and yelled, “O.J.!” For about five seconds, I looked around the course for the disgraced former football great. Then I cackled away with the rest of my foursome as I realized I was the focus of an act of drive-by satire.
With that as my most vivid golfing memory, I sat down last Friday afternoon to watch The Legend of Bagger Vance, one of the year’s most beautiful pictures. It’s about golf — at grass level — but goes deeper to explore some of life’s enduring issues, among them lost glory, adversity, and redemption.
Based on Steven Pressfield’s novel, Bagger Vance is set in 1931 Savannah, Georgia. The country club built by the late father of Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) faces foreclosure as the Great Depression deepens. She tries to revive the club through an exhibition tournament between the two greatest golfers around, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, real-life pros played by Joel Gretsch and Walter Hagen. Needing a hometown favorite to stir excitement within Savannah, Invergordon and the town elders turn to Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), her ex-fiance and a one-time golden boy on the links. He spends his evenings playing cards with sketchy neighbors and drowning his painful memories from a World War I fight of which he was the sole survivor.
Bagger Vance (Will Smith) strolls onto the scene, seemingly from nowhere. He offers to serve as Junuh’s caddy for “five dollars, guaranteed.” With a blend of motherwit and vaguely New Age mysticism, Vance helps Junuh refocus his life and regain his fighting spirit. “You lost your swing,” Vance tells Junuh. “You gotta go find it.”
The film interweaves the ensuing golf competition with Junuh’s struggle to defeat his inner demons and reconcile his past relationship with Invergordon. (What odd names this film’s characters have!)
Matt Damon delivers yet another star turn as the haunted golfer, showing considerable range as he grows from a battle-scarred veteran to a man on the mend. In a small, intriguing touch, we see Private Ryan back in France, only this time in a World War I uniform.
Will Smith is suitably mysterious as the enigmatic Bagger Vance. The talented star of Independence Day, Men in Black, and Enemy of the State, displays quiet grace in a film thankfully devoid of car crashes or explosions, save for a brief WW I combat sequence.
Charlize Theron is charming as a young, independent woman trying to keep her world together in the face of serious business pressures and her unrequited love for the man who returned from the trenches, then walked on by.
Joel Gretsch and Walter Hagen are fun to watch as Jones and Hagen, Junuh’s on-course rivals. Jones is a modest but enormously gifted natural while Hagen is half golfer, half showman. He cruises around in a chauffeur-driven convertible and is accompanied on the links by a turban-wearing caddy.
J. Michael Moncrief displays infectious energy as Hardy Greaves, a 10-year-old and Junuh’s biggest fan. The newcomer with a name befitting a bank president nicely leavens his worship of Junuh with a creeping sense of shame at his father who only can find menial work while the Depression grinds on.
The supporting cast of Savannah citizens adds to the authentic feel of the festivities. Mayor Grantland Rice (Lane Smith) bombastically leads a band of civic boosters and investors who hope to repossess the country club, then squarely back the tournament. The community’s overwhelming interest in the competition and the fate of its local hero recalls a time when few things competed for people’s attention and a neighborhood sensation could seize an entire city’s imagination.
In a bit of cinematic deja vu, Robert Redford directs the 30-year-old Mr. Damon who — from wardrobe to hairstyle — strikingly resembles Redford as the Great Gatsby, a role he played in 1974 while also in his thirties.
Redford and his craftsmen expertly re-create the late 1920s and early 1930s. Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography is among the year’s most sumptuous. Judianna Makovsky’s costumes are lushly rendered as is Stuart Craig’s production design — right down to the running boards on the Model Ts and seemingly hand-blown bottles through which we watch Junuh’s and Invergordon’s fractious reunion early on. Rachel Portman’s score thankfully avoids the flourishes that hammer home the poignancy of particular scenes (The Contender severely suffers at the hands of such a clanging musical telegraph). Additional Jazz Age tunes complement the story line rather than distract from the action.
I did wonder through much of this film whether an outspoken, albeit wise, black man would have endeared himself to white Savannahans, especially as a caddy. Bagger Vance fits in among high society remarkably well for a Negro in the 1930s South. While only somewhat distracting, this portrait of racial peace seems more a reflection of screenwriter Jeremy Leven’s social aspirations than an accurate portrayal of southern history seven decades hence.
In yet another year plagued by teen horror flicks and action adventures seemingly scripted by stevedores, Bagger Vance very elegantly captures the relaxed tone and good-humored tension of a quality golf match. Director Robert Redford achieves this fine balance through the performances he inspires and his gentle yet engaging work behind the camera. With a champion’s confidence, Robert Redford has swung his club and landed this most sublime picture right where he knew it should go.
For more, visit IMDB’s Legend of Bagger Vance page.