Maybe you have to love golf to truly appreciate Robert Redford’s new film, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Redford’s reverent reverie of the sport is bathed in soft golden light, signaling that this film is about more than a game; it’s something akin to a religious experience. What we have here is golf as American Myth. Redford imbues his fable with the same sort of mystical awe that has been accorded other sports in cinema. Films like The Natural and Field of Dreams come immediately to mind, and like those films, the sport in Bagger Vance is really a metaphor for the challenges of life itself.
The film is clearly a fable, so its sentimental romanticizing can be excused. Legends, after all, are nothing more than the collective consciousness’ yearning for meaning in the ordinary. In Redford’s film based on the novel by Steven Pressfield, the golden glow of golf becomes a symbol of redemption. If that sounds like a stretch, you’ll find the entire premise of the film a stretch. And if you’re not a golf enthusiast, you’ll find the 54-hole match less than thrilling.
Redford has a penchant for period pieces. He’s been in several of them and he’s made a few himself. The Legend of Bagger Vance, set in 1928 Savannah at the front end of the Great Depression, is beautifully filmed and costumed. Though the stuff of legend, the story isn’t as compelling as you’d hope, and the characters never come across as flesh-and-blood human beings. In all fairness, mythic characters seldom do.
Rannulph Junuh, the golden boy with “thunder in his fist,” had it all until World War I destroyed his spirit. Savannah still remembers the amazing shot that Junuh took at age 16 in the Georgia Amateur. The golf tournament was stopped for 20 minutes just so onlookers could measure how far he’d hit the ball. Junuh’s biggest triumph, however, was winning the heart of Adele, the daughter of the wealthiest man in Savannah.
Matt Damon, more sure of himself with each role, plays the promising golfer World War I turned into a recluse, who relies on whiskey to blot out the painful memories. After witnessing the horrors of the battlefield, Junuh simply disappeared. Leaving his young wife and the promise of his youth behind, he wanted only “to forget and be forgotten.”
Charlize Theron has perfect pitch (and a killer wardrobe) as Adele, the proud and determined Southern belle whom Junuh abandoned. A force in her own right, she’s as in control of her emotions as she is of her late father’s golf resort. She won’t crack or offer any hint that the former golf hero broke her heart when he disappeared after the war. Determined to save her father’s resort from businessmen eager to take it off her hands, Adele invites the greatest golfers of the day, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen (real life golf legends, by the way), to play in what she’s billing as “the greatest golf open ever.” But the town insists a Savannah man be included in the competition.
Making his film debut, 12-year-old J. Michael Moncrief plays Hardy Greaves, a young boy who idolizes Junuh and knows where to find him. Hardy coaxes his hero out of hiding to play in the once-in-a-lifetime gold match. Savannah is determined to make a hero out of the fallen Junuh yet.
Will Smith, in a very subtle performance, is completely charming as Bagger Vance, the mysterious man who appears in the night to become Junuh’s spiritual guide and caddy. The smiling, all-knowing Bagger is the legendary figure here, not the fallen hero Rannulph Junuh. Junuh has lost his swing, and Bagger seems to have been sent from on high to help him find it—and himself. “Inside each and every one of us is our one true, authentic swing,” he tells Junuh. “Something that’s ours and ours alone. Something that can’t be learned … something that’s got to be remembered.” Golf becomes the shell-shocked Junuh’s salvation, a way for him to exorcise his demons. Bagger Vance is the guardian angel sent to deliver Junuh from those demons and offer him redemption. At one point in the film, the audience may feel they’ve accidentally stumbled into a screening of Touched By An Angel.
Bagger talks about the grass being a living organism, gives Junuh inspiration and golf tips, and in the middle of the exhibition helps him finally get his swing back. “The perfect shot is out there waiting for us to find it,” Bagger tells Junuh. “All we gotta do is get out of the way.” Junuh heeds his every word. As the crowds look on, he hits the hallowed ball. The cameras follow its trajectory in slow motion, and a heavenly chorus swells to cheer his drive. A miracle has occurred. Lest there be any question about Bagger’s role, in the final scene we see him in silhouette beckoning a dying old golfer home, no doubt to golfer’s heaven.
The story is framed by Jack Lemmon as the elderly Hardy, recalling the legend of Bagger Vance from his youth. He was a star-struck young boy when the events occurred, which has not only colored his memories but magnified them to mythic proportions over time. That’s precisely how myths are created. If you take the film on its own terms, viewing it as the retelling of myth, you’ll be more forgiving of its excess—though you’ll still likely roll your eyes a time or two.
The Legend of Bagger Vance (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Robert Redford. Starring Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron.