Film Analysis: Breaking Away (1979)
'Breaking Away' is breaking records!
The 1979 Academy Award winning film Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates, tells its audience an inspiring story about four teenage boys living in Bloomingdale, Indiana who have not decided which paths to take after having recently earned their high school diplomas. Actors Dennis Christopher, who plays the leading role of Dave Stoller, Dennis Quaid as Mike, Daniel Stern as Cyril, and Jackie Earle Haley as Moocher, portray the boys.
Other notable characters include Barbara Barrie as Dave’s mother Evelyn, Paul Dooley as Dave’s father Ray, and introducing Robin Douglass, who plays as Dave’s love interest Katherine (or “Katarina,” as Dave would call her, when putting on his fake Italian accent in an attempt to woo her). The film is mainly presented as a coming of age comedy-drama, but it can also be categorized under sports films.
Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher are working-class teenagers who have a strong bond with one another. They intend to maintain their friendship, and this factors into their uncertainty of what to do with their post-secondary lives. They live in a college town, which often causes them to clash with the wealthier university students. The main reason for Dave’s uncertainty of enrolling in college would be due to his obsession with bicycle racing. He is particularly motivated by the professional Italian bicycling team Cinzano, thus beginning to associate Italian music, culture, and the language with his daily lifestyle. This confuses and even disturbs his father, who considers his change in behaviour to be abnormal. On the other hand, his mother supports his interests and does not see an issue.
Dave poses as an Italian exchange student to impress Katherine, going ahead of the game by serenading her one night outside her bedroom window. When Cinzano arrives to town for a race, Dave is overjoyed at the chance to compete with them. Dave is considerably naïve; little does he know that there are competitors who will do anything it takes to dominate their opponents, which may also include cheating. This very incident occurs when Dave’s Italian speaking and ability to keep up with them throughout the course aggravates the Italians. This provokes one of the leading bicyclists to jam a bike pump in Dave’s wheel, causing Dave to crash down a nearby ditch. He is left physically and mentally hurt, unable to believe what had just happened.
After Dave’s friends drive him home, they persuade him to form a cycling team together for the annual Indiana University Little 500 bicycle race. They race under the name “Cutters” against various university intramural teams. Since Dave has incredible endurance and a massive amount of speed, he is able to ride without resting and immediately takes the lead, while the other competitors have to switch cyclists once they complete several laps.
Unfortunately, Dave gets injured during the race and cannot continue, leaving it up to his hesitant friends to take turns pedalling and immediately losing their place at the top. Finally, in perseverance, Dave has his feet taped to his bicycle and makes up for lost time; he overthrows the leading cyclist and earns the winning title, with everyone rejoicing over his victory. The film comes to a close with Dave attending the university sometime after this joyous occasion.
Breaking Away is pleasant and heartwarming; it definitely does not require viewers to have a fascination towards bicycle racing to fully enjoy the film. Each of the main characters has a distinct personality and it is captivating to watch them interact with and genuinely support each other onscreen.
Dave, especially with regard to the fact that he is the leading role, is unlike most teenage boys who experience puberty by hiding their emotions in response to societal pressures to "man up." He is rather sensitive, and lets others know how he feels right away. He offers help whenever possible, such as returning Katherine’s book when she drops it or working at the car dealership with his father. One might regard him as an animated and happy-go-lucky type, as he is lively and generally optimistic towards things. He also does not seem to care about who judges him, which is clearly demonstrated as he cruises through town reciting Italian operas and greeting his neighbours in the language, paying no mind to what they might think of him. He is not a very complex character to read, as various situations he finds himself in instantly and visibly alter his mood.
Mike attempts to build himself a "tough guy" image not only to be idolized by others, but also to pursue a career in football. He tends to take centre stage in his friends’ encounters with other groups; he prefers to do most of the talking and is rather blunt when stating his opinions.
Cyril is a tall, lanky, and goofy character who has a subtle sense of humour to amuse the crowd during the more serious parts of the film. An example of this is when a police officer dealing with Mike’s case asks the boys what had happened to instigate a fight between him and a group of frat boys; he explains that they are traumatized by the conflicts in the Middle East. The way he delivers this line is so discreet, coupled with the fact that it’s unexpected given the circumstance, so it helps to lighten up the mood for the audience.
Moocher has a lot of confidence and spunk for someone who is consistently teased because of his small size. Though being called “short” is a setback, he proves that he is strong-willed by standing up and fighting for himself. He even smashes his employer’s punch clock because of his stubbornness. In spite of that, Moocher is very supportive of his friends; there are instances when he advises Dave on personal and female problems. This is a nice dynamic to see onscreen, as it debunks the myth that men do not express or open up about their feelings often enough, especially to other male peers.
Nonetheless, the contrasting attributes these four possess do not stop them from having common hobbies, such as driving around campus and catcalling attractive girls. The highlight of the film is when Dave’s friends try to complete the race for him; even though they know they aren’t capable enough to keep up his initial pace, this gesture shows their devotion to his dreams and their willingness to assist him however they can, and to no boundaries.
Another enthralling aspect of this film is the unique soundtrack. Viewers will note that there is no popular music played from that decade. Instead, we hear classical compositions such as Symphony No. 4 in A Major, perfectly fitting Dave’s character, and anthems like “Indiana, Our Indiana” at the end of the film, which complements the jovial setting and the actual sporting event itself. Orchestrated music ties in brilliantly with the actions in this film, as they illustrate the instances of suspense during the bicycle races, as well as Dave’s excitement over falling in love while training in the woods.
Though the film is certainly likable, the sports genre aspect may not appeal to everyone. The film does have subplots and incorporates bicycling nicely with family dynamics, teenage drama, and the clashing character mentalities. However, in films like this, the main character is usually the budding athlete who becomes a champion in the end without much variation in the movie’s underlying message or plot points. Thus, viewers might find it cheesy, repetitive, and in a way, half-baked.
Additionally, the movie is heavily influenced by past bicycling marathons and the history of the sport in general, as films of this kind typically are, and people probably want filmmakers to start coming up with their own ideas when tackling real-life subject matters as opposed to constantly retelling true stories with fictional characters to present their point. It has been done many times, and there is not much more for viewers to learn by taking this route.
The bottom line here is that films, regardless of genre, tend to be made not out of passion or to offer alternative ways of perceiving events, but rather to an established formula that seemingly appeals to the masses. Needless to say, there are people who catch on to this and are vocal about innovation. Rest assured though, Breaking Away is a considerable departure from this trend, which is impressive given the time when it was released, as movies then were usually pretty corny.
The film itself has a natural presentation, as a lack of computer animation and special effects were used at the time (with the exception of possible stuntman performances). The setting never changes, which is appropriate for the plot, as no events take place outside of Bloomingdale. Any extras would detract the viewer’s consciousness away from the unfolding of events and the overall meaning behind the story.
It is moving because it encourages not only athletes, but also others to strive for their goals and make decisions based on what is right for them, and not necessarily to cater to peer or even parental pressures. While it is true that those close to us will often give us advice on what to do, it is ultimately us who have to play the judge and decide on how to approach any situation with both our instinct and reason.
This is a simplistic yet effective film, because it is meant to engage people with its straightforward story and character relationships, not to thrill with a popular soundtrack or flashy, dangerous stunts like most action films do. It demonstrates the real struggles any individual might face, not only while reaching their goals, but also in their interactions with significant people in their lives. It is definitely recommendable for a general audience, though with attention to some mild language and a fight scene.