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David Chappellet is a mean-spirited skier, who profits from another skier's injury to gain a spot on the American Olympic team. His roommate sums up his goals when he observes of David, "He's not for the team, and he never will be"; but precisely who the David is that David is so fiendishly striving for we're never to learn. He develops a short-lived relationship with Carole Stahl, a glamorous European woman even more capricious than himself. Chappellet's identity trouble are exacerbated by the fact that he is an "Event" as well as a personality; and more astute minds than his own have difficulty where the one leaves off and the other takes over. Director Michael Richie's ("The Candidate") feature film debut. Written by
The pursuit of success - this time, on the mountain.
Downhill Racer is about Olympic skiing, but it's also about American society, and about how sport gives the illusion of being an escape from the loneliness of being undereducated.
Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford) grew up in the isolation of rural Colorado, where the career option after high school is working on a ranch or going to Denver to take a hairdressing course. His talent on skis has earned him a call to the US national ski team as a replacement after one of the members fractures his leg in a European race. When he arrives in Germany after what seems to have been his first airplane flight, he meets his new roommate, a Dartmouth graduate, one of several team members from that same Eastern undergraduate world.
Chappellet remains cautious and defensive as he tries to navigate the manners, attitudes, and values of the team and of the European civilization he encounters. He's made even more prickly by the code of team play which he's required to accept from his demanding coach, Eugene Clair (Gene Hackman). Clair believes that good sportsmanship and team solidarity are the basis for success in international skiing, and that's important because success is what will achieve financial support for the team from American business. But Chappellet refuses to play the sportsmanship game - partly because he knows he can't speak the Ivy League language his teammates have mastered, and partly because he knows that winning is the only way he'll stay on the team, and Clair's concept of sportsmanship won't help him win, any more than would the attitude or values of Chappellet's embittered father back in Colorado. Dave Chappellet know he's going to have to ski his own race, always.
Downhill Racer features a variety of exciting ski races filmed and edited with great skill, and they reveal very powerfully that, in the midst of all the thousands of spectators, each skier is alone on the mountain, and that winning comes from a combination of relentless focus and arbitrary fortune. With this truth presented so clearly and compellingly, Chappellet's refusal to play his coach's game is validated. On race day he has to ski faster than anyone else. No one else can help him. And neither will membership in the right club (or school, or social background). He has to do it on his own.
But being on your own is very lonely. Chappellet begins to want to belong, and chases after a kind of club membership in Europe, pursuing the very attractively worldly Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv), executive assistant to a German ski manufacturer. He catches her because he's becoming famous, and thus useful, but discovers that he's not important to her. He's a pleasant diversion, but he can be discarded as easily as a pair of gloves. He receives praise from his coach, but only after winning races. Until he wins, he's the target of Clair's angry lectures about not thinking of the good of the team. Hackman's strangled speech and look of frustrated disgust as he berates the uncooperative Redford for having taken an unacceptable risk after practice create a high-water mark in American film acting, as does the surly self-centredness of Redford's response.
At the end of the movie, narrowly dodging defeat in the most important race in his career, Chappellet is hoisted on the crowd's shoulders in a frozen moment of apparent triumph. But only one value exists - winning. And his win is already history. There's no love in it, no acceptance more profound than his coach's praise, the crowd's shouts of excitement. And tomorrow's winner is already eyeing him in an unspoken challenge. Dave Chappellet is going to be skiing down this mountain alone for the rest of his life.
Looking back across nearly forty years to watch this excellent film, we can already begin to hear the question asked by Robert Redford's character in The Candidate, "What happens next?" The answer may be bleak - more competition, more loneliness - but the film helps us discover the answer in a fascinating way, because it puts us on those skis, rushing at impossible speed down the mountain, in a cocoon of our own heartbeats, our own laboured breathing. We're forced to ask ourselves, "Would we make the team? Would we win? And if we did, would it mean anything?"
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