Athletes in Film Blogathon: Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)

Introduction

When first learning of the Athletes in Films Blogathon, there were some obvious choices I could make. However, having just written about Space Jam, and not holding in it in as high esteem as some in my generation and younger, the only clear choice left for me was to write about Amazing Grace and Chuck yet again. Though having written on it extensively as part of a larger piece, I didn’t focus too much on the professional athlete involved in a key role. Therefore, I will do so here.

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

This is a film in which:

A little league player named Chuck refuses to ever pitch again until nuclear weapons are disarmed. Basketball star “Amazing Grace” Smith follows the boy’s example, and starts a trend.

The athlete in question in this film is:

…played by Alex English who was a player for the Denver Nuggets at the time this film was produced. We see him playing, hit a three-point shot and give his famous three fingers in the air gesture, after the game his agent/best friend, Lynn (Jaime Lee Curtis) reads him an article about Chuck and the wheels start spinning.

With the memory of his wife and daughter gnawing at his mind, Amazing decides to quit basketball and do like Chuck did, an official protest has begun. At one point someone asks Amazing “Do you really think you’re going to bring an end to nuclear weapons?” Amazing turns to him and says “I don’t know but wouldn’t it be nice.” This soon starts a snowball effect and so many athletes join the cause that professional sports are crippled and the movement spreads worldwide.

Alex English Celtics

English (pictured) played a preseason game with the Boston Celtics that was used as his game footage for the film. Having an active player play an exhibition with a team he was not contracted by is an impressive feat that Columbia/Tri-Star and the production team pulled off with the NBA’s cooperation.

The notion of athletes as activists does have quite a few precedents in sports. Here are some examples:

  • Muhammad Ali refuses induction in Vietnam.
  • “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Michael Jordan on his sociopolitical neutrality as a public speaker.
  • 1980s a decade of sports as politics: consecutive Summer Olympic boycotts.
  • First Post-9/11 games in New York.
  • “I can’t breathe” shirts in NFL.
  • Athletes for Trump.

Alex English

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This film marked Alex English’s debut as an actor. Later he went on to play Mayor Wade on Midnight Caller, then the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Eddie. The following year (1997) he was in The Definite Maybe as “The Premiere.” It was his first big screen role as a non-athlete and his second time playing some sort of leader. Despite an intermittent, free of too-much fanfare acting career, he did develop a second type aside from the most obvious one based on his first career. His most recent role was in Lumera, which was the feature film debut of his son writer/director Alexander English, Jr. who sure enough got bit by the bug during dad’s forays into the entertainment industry.

Critical Reception

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

With regards the reaction to the movie, it was critically panned. Variety noted that “Amazing Grace and Chuck is destined to go down in history as the camp classic of the anti-nuke genre. As amazingly bad as it is audacious, film will live forever in the hearts of connoisseurs of Hollywood’s most memorably outrageous moments.”

Prescient words as one of my viewings of this film was an unexpected premiere on TCM not too long ago, and Warner Archive recently rescued this film and has made it available on DVD at long last I could move on from my recorded off TV version.

However, not all the reviews were as harsh as Variety‘s. Janet Maslin of The New York Times at least had gentle praise for the performers stating that “Mr. Zuehlke, who is so precocious and somber, and Mr. English, who is nothing if not sincere…” which he most certainly is. Director Mike Newell chose English well. Newell has had tremendous results from young actors in his charge. A professional athlete like a child has less craft than an experienced, trained actor — so much falls to the director to cast well, finding the right persona, and coaxing as much natural response as his trust engenders from his actor.

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

If limiting the casting options for Amazing Grace to contemporary basketball players of the late-‘80s English stands out as the obvious pick: as Michael Jordan would later show in Space Jam he was a bit stiff performance-wise and a bit too cool in persona to pull it off. Charles Barkley would be more suited in a comedy and would not bring the necessary gravitas to the film. Magic Johnson was too Hollywood to not be a distraction in this role. English fits.

Newell went on to imply that the audaciousness — and the Amazing Grace quote — are the very point of the film that must be taken into account when appraising its virtues and contrasting them to its deficits:

“I hope this film will leave audiences energized and with a great surge of hope. I hope it will be a reminder that the individual can make a difference and that humanity is capable of following its best instincts.”

Conclusion

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

In my initial piece I concluded by saying:

This is a film that is idealist and dares to dream. It takes the fears of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and combines them with the hope of Glasnost and presented us with a fantasy. The poster for this film should tell you it’s a fantasy. And it’s one that only could have come out of the 80s, this film literally drips 80s. In the 1990s, and especially in the present, disarmament was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. It’s a great film about one person can make a difference and a film with a message.

This paired with Newell’s notion of the certitude I have that English was likely the best possible choice from a shallow talent pool of professional basketball acting talent. A humility, Grace (to match the fictional nickname), believable idealism, and the ability to quietly inspire followers was a necessity for this concept to have a chance and its what Alex English could bring to the table naturally.

Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Amazing Grace and Chuck (Part 15 of 17)

Warning: This post features in depth story analysis, which includes spoilers. If you have not seen this film proceed at your own risk or not at all.

This film was the catalyst for this paper. I think what I admire above all else in filmmaking is bravery and I think it was very risky to make this film. This is an idealistic fairy tale about global nuclear disarmament and of political martyrdom. David Field, writer, and Mike Newell, director, knew no fear in making this film, there was no ceiling for how far it could go. While it’s an outlandish tale, it admits as such, and gives it even more redeeming value in the process.

The film very early on inserts a title stating “Once Upon A Time There was a Boy…” it’s a fairy tale, for some reason some Americans just cannot comprehend that a fairy tale can be depicted in a live action film. What we have in this film is a grassroots movement. A boy, Chuck Murdock (Joshua Zuehlke), is taken on a field trip to a missile silo one day. The kids are shown an actual missile, Chuck is the only one who questions its existence and is also very frightened because his father is in the Air Force. After the trip the Congressman who led them around pulls him aside and tells him “That missile will never be used, that’s why it was built,” it’s that kind of thinking that got us in an arms race stockpile and made us want to scare the other guy into not using their weapons. That night Chuck has a nightmare that he is caught at the silo during a nuclear attack.

The next day when he gets on the pitcher’s mound he decides to quit baseball. He states it’s “his best thing,” and no one understands why their star pitcher walked off the field. Then he explains that he won’t play baseball again until there are no more nuclear weapons.

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

The other protagonist of this film is a professional basketball player nicknamed “Amazing Grace” Smith, played by Alex English who was a player for the Denver Nuggets at the time this film was produced. We see him playing, hit a three-point shot and give his famous three fingers in the air gesture, after the game his agent/best friend, Lynn (Jaime Lee Curtis) reads him an article about Chuck and the wheels start spinning.

With the memory of his wife and daughter gnawing at his mind, Amazing decides to quit basketball and do like Chuck did, an official protest has begun. At one point someone asks Amazing “Do you really think you’re going to bring an end to nuclear weapons?” Amazing turns to him and says “I don’t know but wouldn’t it be nice.” This soon starts a snowball effect and so many athletes join the cause that professional sports are crippled and the movement spreads worldwide. So leftist is this film that Ted Turner was a consultant and used this film to promote CNN with many news reports in the film brandishing their logo.

The protest continues and gains national recognition. Chuck meets with the president and he eventually proposes that the Americans and Russians will disarm within seven years but this plan is rejected because the President (Gregory Peck) might not be in office by then. The protest causes problems between Chuck and his father and Amazing Grace starts getting anonymous phone calls. A powerful businessman, who has been threatening Amazing Grace, tricks him into getting on one of his planes and then he blows it up. Following Amazing Grace’s death Chuck vows not to talk anymore and this movement sweeps across the world and forces another meeting between the Russian Premier and the President.

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

We see them meeting at people in Montana in a cabin just a few miles from Chuck’s home. The President opens by saying “Are your grandchildren talking to you?” the Premier laughs and says “No.” Then they talk about how troubling it is that they’re losing their children. And ultimately this is what the disarmament would be for: so they don’t lose their children. They agree on total nuclear disarmament immediately. And, of course, the president goes to visit Chuck and thanks him.

Now a lot happens in these two hours and it all ends with Chuck stepping back up on the mound. The Russian Premier is there, so’s the President. The catcher starts to give him signs he shakes off the fastball one, and the curve two, and then he turns to the crowd and makes the three-point gesture. And every one stands and repeats the gesture, yeah it’s been done to death but in this film it all works. Chuck looks up to the heavens when he’s poised and says a word to Amazing, he throws the pitch and we follow the ball in close shot as it spins through the sky and cut to black and then there’s a title it reads:

“But wouldn’t it be nice.”
-Amazing Grace Smith

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

This is a film that is idealist and dares to dream. It takes the fears of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and combines them with the hope of Glasnost and presented us with a fantasy. The poster for this film should tell you it’s a fantasy. And it’s one that only could have come out of the 80s, this film literally drips 80s. In the 1990s, and especially in the present, disarmament was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. It’s a great film about one person can make a difference and a film with a message.