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Golf Movie Review: The Legend of Bagger Vance

Dear Readers:
As requested, after reading what the critics have had to say, Dr. Putt has carefully watched Bagger Vance and wishes to offer the following review. He has strong feelings about the matter.

Rannulph Junuh (played by Matt Damon) is a once promising amateur from Savannah broken by the horrors of trench warfare in Europe. Bagger Vance (played by Will Smith) serves as a spiritual guide/caddy of mysterious origins, and helps Junuh get in touch with his soul and his swing. The tale is told from the perspective of a dying old man (Jack Lemon), as he remembers it from his youth when he was the “fore caddy” for his hero in an epic three man match with Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.

The only other well-known star of the movie is the director Robert Redford, whose love for golf, nature, and mythical story telling motivates his work in this movie. In Redford’s own words, available on the DVD version of the movie, the story is “about a man who lost his authentic swing,” where “authentic swing” is really only the outward visible manifestation of his soul. Redford also laments America’s lost art of story telling in an information age in which the volume of information overwhelms intelligence and integrity. He offers this story as a legendary moral myth using golf as a metaphor to help us uplift our souls.

The movie critics were unimpressed, to put it mildly. They panned the movie for totally missing the racial realities of the time (a young southern white of the 1930s would not call a black man “sir,” and a black caddie would certainly not be allowed in the locker room with the players). They attacked it for overly sweet sentimentality. And some put the movie down because it was about golf, which some critics see as a trivial rich white man’s game. (To see the range of mostly rotton reviews, see rottentomatoes.com.)

Balderdash! On several counts. Yes, the racial realities are wrong. But the movie was told from the perspective of a dying old white man of the South, who in all likelihood would have edited in his own memory the injustices and prejudiced practices of his youth. But that was not really the point of the movie.

And yes, the movie is sentimental and simple. But many myths fall into that mold. The negative reviews tell us more about the state of modern popular culture than about the movie. Perhaps the nation really is in a moral crisis when popular culture rejects a story about what has long been-perhaps until now-a core cultural myth: the possibility of finding authentic happiness within ourselves. Perhaps we are too caught up in the pessimism of depressing and gory reality stories to see positive possibilities within ourselves.

And the golf-Dr. Putt must comment on the golf. It was a rich white man’s sport, but the movie celebrates the embryo of the democratization of the game, which parallels the democratization of the nation, a nation that once restricted the franchise to the same class of people who would later create the country clubs. But the game had appeal to the black caddies and to the working class kids. And they would some day play it at levels only imagined by the country club set of old.

The scenery is beautiful. Dr. Putt recently played Colleton River, located at Hilton Head, where some of the movie was shot, which is a beautiful course. Redford’s camera-work more than does the course justice. The people are beautiful, just as one would expect in a mythical legend. And some of the golf swings are beautiful.

Joel Gretsch’s portrayal of Bobby Jones was quite wonderful, all the way down to his fluid effortless swing. Kudos to PGA pro Tim Moss for helping him match the swing we see in the old films. One minor point. They should have dyed his hair darker to match Jones’ dark locks.

Bruce McGill’s Walter Hagan is also quite believable. His swing matches the brash character of Hagan, and his finishing pose is indeed Hagan. To use the movie’s terminology, the swing appeared to be authentic Hagan.

The most questionable swing is that of Junuh. Indeed, the movie notes tell us that Damon did not play golf, and had to learn the game for the film. Damon slaps at the ball and does not stay connected through the swing. His left arm does a bit of the “chicken-wing” on the follow-through. Despite Tim Moss’s best guiding efforts, Damon had not found his own authentic swing by the end of the film. But Dr. Putt is nitpicking. So let us turn to the heart of the matter.

In a larger sense, we are all Junuh. We are trying to find salvation from the demons that have damaged the souls of our innocent years, or at least what we nostalgically remember as our innocent years. As Bagger says, golf is just a game, but what he suggests is that it is a game we cannot play well until we come to accept ourselves. We must love ourselves despite faults that we struggle to overcome. This is a requirement if you want to reach your potential in golf or in any aspect of life. Moreover, you must be willing to trust yourself when under pressure, trust the swing you have worked so hard to build. To do this, it must be your own authentic swing, a swing that fits your own body and temperament, not something borrowed from the latest issue of a golf magazine. It is often said that good players do not care what others think about their swings. It must be your own swing, not a superficially pretty copy of someone else’s. To play well, it must be, as Bagger says, just you and the ball. You must sweep away all the distractions and doubts and then employ the authentic swing that you have created for yourself. You can and should have “guides” along the way, but it must be your swing.

These subtle and difficult truths are beyond the jaded movie critics who have never tried to play serious golf. The Legend of Bagger Vance helps drive these lessons home. Even though the movie may be a bit sappy and sentimental, and even though some of the swings may be authentically amateurish, watching the movie is time well spent.

Dr. Putt

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