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It’s one thing to be family-friendly. It’s something completely different to be faith-based. Yet the advertising campaign for The Mighty Macs that touted the film as the latter, specifically Christian type seems to have confused the two. With careful parental guidance, The Mighty Macs can be appropriate for all ages, offering a chance for families to watch a movie together that will be especially enjoyable for basketball fans. Just don’t expect to find much of substance, either artistically or spiritually, in this film that is more about believing in oneself and personal dreams than in God.
The plot of The Mighty Macs is unfortunately simple to summarize. Take your pick of clichéd sports movies, and you’ll have it. Based on a true story (of course), the film gives an account of Cathy Rush, a woman in the early 70’s who becomes the head coach of the perennially-losing basketball team at Immaculata, an all-girls Catholic college. The Macs team is ill-funded, without a gym or uniforms, and its players are similarly underappreciated and impoverished.
At least, that’s what we’re informed by Cathy in a narration that makes this film frequently break the cardinal storytelling rule to show, rather than tell. Yet the voice over isn’t the only place where this tendency is evident, as actors even deliver lines at various points throughout the movie that, under a thin disguise, announce meanings or themes that the filmmakers want to be sure the audience gets.
One thing that astute viewers can’t possibly miss is that The Mighty Macs contains barely any evidence of real Christianity, even though nuns populate and run Immaculata. For the most part, Christianity is only present in this film when it is useful to the characters at that moment. Cathy, for example, recites 1 Corinthians 9:24 when giving her players a pep talk before a big game. Disregarding the verse’s context and meaning (to “Run in such a way as to get the prize,” speaking of a heavenly prize), Cathy dishonors the Scripture by using it to tell the girls that they’ve earned the right to the “prize” of a basketball championship.
Before that same crucial game, Cathy asks assistant coach and nun, Sister Sunday, to lead the team in prayer. Sister Sunday looks surprised, giving testament that this is the first time the team had gone to God before a game. Similarly, nuns and players are shown praying, clearly about winning basketball games, when the team is doing well and may go to the championship.
When Christian beliefs and practices are not so useful, they are discounted in this film for the sake of “fun” or enabling the team’s goals. For examples of this disregard of Christian principles, one need look no further than the nuns themselves. Sister Sunday, in particular, has quite a few inconsistencies that contradict her supposed commitment to God. The most prominent is her willingness to deceive when she believes it to be for a good cause.
[SPOILER WARNING FOR ALL THAT FOLLOWS] At one point, Sister Sunday lies to Mother St. John to keep Cathy out of trouble, and, in another scene, she goes along with Cathy’s deceit (for the sake of the team and winning), even though she identifies it as “sin.” While demonstrating a block, Sister Sunday also backs into the front of a boy basketball player, who looks uncomfortable while she shows the aggressive blocking position, which is clearly inappropriate for a coed situation.
Mother St. John, the head of the Immaculata Order, stands as a stronger example through her actions during the course of the film, but we’re told that even she used to play poker with the nuns—a story that is recounted by the nuns with a wistful longing for the good old days. Small wonder, then, that Sister Sunday unhesitatingly hangs out with Cathy at a bar, where Sister Sunday drinks a large mug of beer and is a bit flirty with a man who approaches the lovely pair.
Perhaps such behavior isn’t normal for Sister Sunday, and she is only being corrupted by the influence of Cathy, who admits she is not Catholic. Cathy does, however, claim to be a Baptist—an association that is hardly comforting to Sister Sunday. Aghast, the assistant coach asks Cathy, “you do believe?” Cathy gives this question the equally vague answer, “Above all else.” Whatever Cathy may or may not believe, which is not at all clarified through this brief interchange, it doesn’t seem to affect her life, as her sole purpose is to find fulfillment in seeking her personal dreams.
The fact that pursuing her dreams is Cathy’s all-consuming goal is obvious throughout The Mighty Macs in Cathy’s actions, as well as in the several verbal declarations of that theme. When the film starts, we learn that Cathy has only been married for a few months, and her husband, Ed, is against her coaching. His apprehension seems to be justified when Cathy becomes so busy coaching that the couple rarely sees each other. Yet Cathy demonstrates little or no concern for what needs to be sacrificed in her effort to chase her dream of coaching basketball.
Cathy is not hypocritical in her priorities, either, as she preaches what she practices. When her star player, Trish, tells Cathy that she has gotten a job at a store, Cathy tells Trish that she must choose between the team and the job. Though Trish’s family is in great need of money, Cathy counsels Trish that she should “have the courage to follow [her] dreams.” She adds that doing so is Trish’s “gift to the world.” Such words may sound inspiring, but a moment’s thought reveals the very uninspiring message of self-centeredness at the root of this advice.
But self is really what The Mighty Macs is all about. Cathy coaches to please herself. She gets an emotionally rejected player to feel better by getting the girl to focus on how great she is. Cathy even endangers the health of her players at one point by having them do an exercise in harsh conditions to test whether or not they are ready to “sacrifice” in order to get what they (including Cathy) want most—their dream of winning. Thus, though Cathy often talks of being a team player, it becomes clear that this, too, is only a means to the end of self-fulfillment.
The Mighty Macs has just as little to offer from a filmmaking perspective. The mediocre quality of this film suggests that the filmmakers were content to shoot for predictability. As such, the film has decent, but unremarkable, acting, cinematography, and the like. The story follows a formula that can be entertaining for hard-core sports fans or those who have never seen a movie from the sports genre before.
Bravely, The Mighty Macs gives a few nods to its famous predecessor Hoosiers, which inevitably leads to some deadly comparisons for the newer movie. At times during the film, it does seem as if The Mighty Macs is trying to be Hoosiers, but fails dismally because it lacks the thematic depth, intensity, and sophistication of the older story.
Hoosiers stands as one of the best sports movies of all time for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is about so much more than sports. Hoosiers delves into the emotional twists, disappointments, and triumphs of complex characters whose lives are so compellingly interwoven with basketball that every moment on the court becomes as necessary, tense, and crucial as the dramatic moments outside the gym. If this goal is what The Mighty Macs is shooting for, the film is a complete air ball.
Instead, The Mighty Macs ends up being a film with one shallow message and one-dimensional characters to match. “We will be #1,” becomes the Macs' fitting slogan, as they are encouraged to put themselves first above all others (or as a team above the rest of the world, if that will help them achieve their individual goals). Again showing no difference among supposed believers, the Immaculata nuns champion this slogan and this goal. But when a movie plays with Christianity, as The Mighty Macs does, it’s the unsuspecting viewers who are apt to get burned.
Family-friendly? Objectionable content is minimal, so this film fits the bill. However, Christians watching this movie will want to be on their toes to look past the pretty words and see the fallacies that lie beneath. Then, when Cathy summarizes, “Anything can happen when we’re committed to our dreams,” you’ll understand this statement for what it is—another imprecise, essentially meaningless phrase that provides a fitting end to a movie that pretends to be so much more.
Check out these movies instead:
Forever Strong (Go Films, 2008)
Beyond the Blackboard (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 2011)
Facing the Giants (Carmel Entertainment, 2006)