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It's never too late to follow your dreams. That important theme is at the heart of Breaking Away, which became an enormous success for everyone involved in the production. The film ended up earning five Academy Award nomination. Breaking Away surpassed expectations and became a significant artistic achievement: it was amongst the most well received films released in 1979. It was later ranked as eighth amongst a list of most aspiring American films by the American Film Institute (as compiled in the 2000's).
This is an underdog story. A story about seeking success even when others see you as being on the losing team (both literally and metaphorically). Dave (Dennis Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) are best friends who stopped moving forward after High School Graduation. They have spent their time since graduation without jobs and they decided to skip the path of going to college. Instead, in Bloomington, Indiana they simply hang out, shoot-the-breeze, and talk about what they might do next. It's isolating and disconcerting for them and they essential form an outcast group separated from more successful college students.
The popular (and financially better off) townies going to college refer to their group as "cutters" (a derogatory term created that is referential to the town's location and low-paying stonecutting profession held by many locals). It's also a way for these college students to try and talk them down for skipping college and because they haven't done much of anything else since their high school graduation. The presumption is that they will eventually become low earning employees who stay in Bloomington, Indiana all their lives rather than move away like the vast majority of college graduates in Bloomington.
The cutters are starting to feel restless. Some of them decide to try and get jobs (but continue to remain unemployed and stay together in the bunch) and others start seeking out other interests. Dave, the primary protagonist of the story, is obsessed with bicycling tournaments, and adores professional Italian racing teams. He even rides a Masi bike which he won in a contest. One of Dave's beloved Italian teams comes to Bloomington for a professional bicycling race which anyone in the town can participate in. Dave enters the race as he has spent countless hours bicycling and has achieved skills with the sport on his own. The Italian team realizes he is keeping up with their speed and finds it annoying that he even learned some Italian words to speak to them. They cheat and put a tire pump between his bicycle wheels, causing Dave to spiral out of control, crash the bike, and become injured.
Disappointed and heartbroken that his bicycling heroes cheated because he was almost as good as they were at the sport, Dave starts to believe that everyone cheats in life. He looks to his own father as someone who reaffirms that idea. Dave's Dad (Paul Dooley) works at a car-sales shop and struggles to make a living wage for the family by mostly selling clunker cars. Friction starts to build further as the aspirations of Dave dwindle, his dad wants him to seek employment (and seems to consider Dave a failure), and his Mom (Barbara Barrie) thinks he "needs time" to figure things out. Dave ends up as someone helping his dad's work at the car-shop. Even with the major disappointment of what happened during the professional bicycling race, Dave continue to be a bicyclist as it is his one true passion in life.
Dave meets a college girl he adores named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), whom he affectionately calls Katarina because of his obsession with Italy. Though he finds himself so embarrassed by his own real life and the fact that he is considered a "cutter" and not a college student that he begins to make up stories to Katherine about being an Italian who came to America as a college student. As a sub-plot, things begin to unfold as a possible relationship brews between Dave and Katherine.
Dave learns about a upcoming bicycling tournament: The Little 500 Competition. It will mostly be participated in by local college students. To enter the local race one has to be a part of a team consisting of four players. Dave convinces his friends to form a team together and that he will bicycle the entire time by himself: that they won't have to worry about racing as well. Dave wants to be able to race in the competition and prove that he is a good bicyclist. Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher band togeher and create team Cutters (and reclaim the name so many have used against them).
The final act of the film is one of the most triumphantly filmed and directed sports competition sequences put to film as it showcases the efforts of the race. Dave is a better racer than anyone else in the competition. He gains a huge lead. Eventually, he crashes and injures himself for going so fast and being the only one bicycling on his team (as most teams switch between laps). Seeing that his huge lead over everyone else might go away and he might not win, even though the rest of his friends are merely average bicyclists at best they all decide to start helping him as bicyclists. Mike, Cyril, and Moocher begin working their hardest to help their friend achieve his dream.
The performances in the film are excellent and everyone in the ensemble works well together. Dennis Christopher delivers an exceptional leading performance as he encapsulated a youthful sense of joy and ambition. It is also amazing seeing the great Dennis Quaid in an early role as Mike, who is the most hesitant to move forward in life and away from the other cutters. Quaid makes the character believably stubborn and sympathetic at the same time.
Daniel Stern (who became famous for his work on The Wonder Years and as an actor in films like Home Alone) had his debut performance as Cyril. Stern is every bit as good with his comic-timing and dramatic capabilities as he would be in his future roles. Stern aptly demonstrated his talent in his debut. Jackie Earle Haley was certainly impressive as Moocher as well. Haley, who was smaller and shorter compared to the other actors, was a good fit for his character (who was frequently bullied for his height). He managed to bring the right level of emotion to those scenes for them to be as believable as they needed to be. Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley were also perfect as Dave's Mom and Dad and respectively pulled off their very different but equally important roles.
When it comes down to looking at the screenplay behind Breaking Away, the screenwriter Steve Tesich (American Flyers, The World According to Garp) really hit a home run with the work he invested telling the story. The characters feel authentically realized and there is a genuine quality to the writing. Tesich seems to know exactly how to tell a story of a small American town and of ordinary people struggling to find their path in life. This is amongst the most inspirational scripts around. It succeeds as both a sports film and as a dramatic story that explores societal divides, an individual's thirst for a dream, and the overcoming of life's obstacles. Dave is a wonderfully well written character and the entire line-up of supporting characters Tesich created help to make this a standout script. Inspired by a real-life story of similar success during a Bicycling tournament, Tesich's brilliant script won the prestigious Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
As a filmmaker, director Peter Yates excels at making the film both cinematically exciting and dramatically relevant. Though Yates was more well known for his action films, including the massively successful Bullitt, Yates shifted gears for Breaking Away and made a film that is ultimately dramatic with some elements of comedy interspersed into the storyline. This sports film was clearly a big departure for the director. Even so, Yates managed to succeed at crafting something personal with a great style and managed to bring forth excellent performances from the entire cast.
The cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti (Poltergeist, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Strange Days) is astonishingly beautiful. I was mesmerized by how gorgeous this film is aesthetically. The colors are strong enough to make an impression without being overly pronounced. The lighting is perfection, even when the sun and lens flare might show up occasionally. It's artistically a beautiful looking film and one which really manages to be complimentary to both the sunny disposition of the racing sequences and the gloom of the struggling "cutters" looking for more out of their lives.
The music for Breaking Away is a combination of original score and new renditions of famous classical music compositions. The music used for the film was simultaneously composed and adapted by Patrick Williams. The choice of classical selections was rather superb and a lot of cinematic energy was utilized because of both these key selections and the way in which the original score blended effectively into the rhythm established by director Yates. Conducted by Lionel Newman, the music sounds lively... ferocious. It's energetic in the best sense of the word.
Few films are as inspirational and moving as Breaking Away. Having seen a lot of sports movies over the years, I am confident that this one ranks amongst the very best of the sports film genre. It's unique in the sense that very few sporting films get made in the bicycling arena, but it also stands out because of the great characterizations, cast, societal commentary, and style. With a excellent screenplay and equally terrific performances it is no surprise the film was a huge hit with the critical community. Breaking Away is a smashing success that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone seeking an uplifting cinematic experience.
Breaking Away arrives on Blu-ray from Twilight Time with a stunning transfer of the film, which has been encoded in 1080p High Definition. The presentation for this noteworthy release is top-notch on virtually every level. The release preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen and the encode presents the film with a detailed richness of color, depth, clarity, and surprisingly effective sheen. Shot on 35mm and finished with DeLuxe, Breaking Away looks amazing for most of the presentation. Daylight scenes are clear and beautiful. There is a very fine layer of film grain (rest assured, no DNR has been applied) yet the film looks decidedly modern with one of the cleanest, sharpest, and most pleasant presentations I have seen on Blu-ray for any film produced in the 70's.
No print damage was detected whatsoever at any point in the presentation. It's as if it was filmed today. The cinematography holds up extremely well. If there is any minor drawback to the entire presentation it's that nighttime scenes sometimes had slightly grayer blacks so black levels aren't perfect throughout the presentation. However, this is certainly not a fault of this glorious encode or transfer and is because of the source footage. This is amongst the best looking Twilight Time Blu-ray releases I have seen and I imagine it is a huge upgrade over the previous DVD editions.
While I haven't seen the prior DVD releases, the first release was a non-anamorphic presentation and the DVD re-release reportedly has a flat look without much in the way of color reproduction successful at preserving the color palette. The colors are very pleasant for this High Definition release and preserve the cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti. I have no doubt that a fan of Breaking Away who already owns a previous DVD edition will consider this a substantial improvement and an essential release based on the newly-minted Blu-ray presentation.
Breaking Away has an audio presentation which is equally impressive to the video presentation. The release comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono presentation which preserves the original sound design of the film. While this is obviously a front-speaker mix and there isn't surround activity, the mix is still quite engaging and effective for the film. The dialogue is always clear and easy to understand while the accompanying classical music pieces are beautifully reproduced and benefit from the 24 bit depth encoding.
English SDH subtitles (for the deaf and hard of hearing) are provided.
Twilight Time has provided a booklet featuring an essay written by film critic Julie Kirgo.
On disc supplements include:
Audio Commentary with actor Dennis Christopher, and film historians Julie Kirgo & Nick Redman
Isolated Score Track
Dennis Christopher's Fellini story (audio only) (approx. 10 min.) - the actor discusses one of the first times he ever appeared in a film. The experience was n the set of Fellini's Roma. He details how he wound up being in the film after crashing the set as a youth who adored Fellini's films and as someone who had wanted to act in one.
"Road to Adulthood" TV Spot (30 sec.)
Original Theatrical Trailer
Breaking Away is a triumphant underdog story which inspired audiences and became a surprise hit. With a stylistic visual flair and superb rhythm, director Peter Yates crafted one of the most impressive sports dramas the cinema has ever seen. The characters and screenplay are so vital within the film too. Fans of international cinema will also cherish the clear nods and stylistic attributes which were clearly inspired by the French New Wave classics and Italian cinema (including the works of filmmaking legend Fellini).
Twilight Time has put together a terrific Blu-ray edition with a high quality presentation and some supplemental materials (appearing for the first time on home media). For fans of this heartfelt film, this Blu-ray edition should be considered a must-own.
Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.