“He’s thrown a tripus! Steve Tevere has thrown a tripus! The most outstanding dismount tonight, or any night!”
— Really Excited Announcer In American Anthem (1986)
Way back in March, I dvr’d a movie called American Anthem off of Encore. I did this for two reasons. First off, the film was described as having something to do with gymnastics and that’s always been my favorite part of the Summer Olympics. Secondly, any film from the 1980s that has the word “American” in the title is sure to be fun or, at the very least, achingly sincere.
When I finally got around to watching American Anthem, I wasn’t expecting much. The film turned out to be largely what I expected it would be: the story of gymnasts hoping to qualify for the Olympics and find some personal redemption along the way. All of the stock characters were present. We had Steve Tevere (Mitch Gaylord), the brooding rebel who had to decide between pursuing his Olympic dreams or working in a garage for the rest of his life. We had Steve’s girlfriend, Julie (Janet Jones), who had to learn to be humble before she could be great. We had Kirk (Stacy Maloney), Steve’s best friend and fellow gymnast. We had kinda bitchy Becky Cameron (Maria Anz), who was Julie’s friend and rival. And then there was Arthur (Andrew White), Julie’s crippled, musician cousin. And let’s not forget Tracy Prescott (Jenny Ester), the 12 year-old gymnast with the impressive afro. And, of course, there was Coach Sarnoff (Michael Pataki) who was tough, compassionate, and Russian. The majority of the cast was made up of real-life gymnasts and, with the exception of the genuinely charismatic Stacy Maloney, they all gave performances that suggested that they should stick with gymnastics.
And yet, despite all of that, I absolutely loved American Anthem. Now, don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I loved it for all the wrong reasons. My love for the film is not the type of love that would lead to me being quoted on the back of a Blu-ray case. American Anthem is a thoroughly bad film but it’s also compulsively watchable. From the minute that I started watching it, I became obsessed with American Anthem‘s bizarre ineptness. Since that first night in March, I’ve rewatched American Anthem a few dozen times. I’ve lost track of how many times that I have grimaced at the cutesy music that Sarnoff tried to force Julie to use for her floor routine. I can imitate Becky’s squeal of pain when she’s tries to compete with an injured knee. Whenever Julie and the girls start to chant, “Kirk! Kirk! Kirk!,” I chant with them. And don’t even get me started on how much I love hearing, “He’s thrown a tripus!”
American Anthem is pure style. This is one of the few films that I’ve seen that has absolutely no subtext. There is literally nothing going on beneath the surface. It’s almost as if somebody dared director Albert Magnoli to make a film that was just one big montage. This is one of those films where the camera is always moving, the colors are always bright, and the soundtrack is always soaring. Hardly anyone in the film can actually act but oh my God, everyone looks so good (in a 1986 sort of way, of course).
The other “great” thing about American Anthem is that there’s not a single cliché that the film doesn’t include and, as a result, you really don’t have to pay that much attention to the film to understand what’s going on. To its credit, this film doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than a collection of clichés. It’s almost as if the characters themselves realize that they are in a film and understand that they have no choice but to conform to what the audience has been conditioned to expect.
(Hmmm…I guess American Anthem does have a subtext. And kind of a disturbing one at that!)
For instance, within minutes of meeting and despite having no chemistry, Steve and Julie are in love. Why? Because the only reason that they are in the film is to fall in love. It has to be done.
Steve fights with his father (John Aprea) and we’re never quite sure why, beyond the fact that all brooding rebels fight with their fathers. When his father shows up to watch his son compete, the triumphant music soars and it no longer matters that he’s been portrayed as being an abusive rageaholic up until that moment.
All of the characters tell us that Coach Sarnoff is the best, despite the fact that we don’t actually see any evidence of that fact. But Sarnoff has to be the best because nobody ever makes a movie about athletes training under a merely adequate coach.
When Becky suddenly shows up at the final competition with a bandaged knee, it doesn’t matter that we don’t actually see her get injured beforehand or, for that matter, hear anything about it. All that matters is that, in films like this, someone has to compete with an injury. Becky is simply playing her part.
American Anthem. It’s not a particularly good film but it sure is watchable. And, as I’ve come to realize while writing this review, it’s a bit of an existential nightmare as well!
I don’t think I’m ever going to erase it from my DVR.