People like to say there’s nothing we love more than an underdog, but that’s only true in the movies. In real life, it’s dominance and greatness that obsess us. That’s why we remember Michael Jordan as the best player on a team that went 72 and 10 and cruised to the NBA title and not as the twenty-eight year old that finally beat the Big Bad Pistons. We’d rather immortalize him at the top, but that plotline wouldn’t work in Hollywood. Movies need adversity and redemption, which is why The Mighty Macs isn’t really about the astounding legacy of the women’s basketball team of Immaculata College.
For a brief spell in the 1970s, the girls ran through opponents as viciously and aggressively as John Wooden’s Bruins. Under coach Cathy Rush, they went an astounding 149 and 15, winning three National Championships and becoming the first female basketball team to play on National Television. That unwavering brilliance is what fans remember, but it’s hardly touched upon here. All the glory is pushed aside to emphasize the program’s humbling beginnings. It might not be the lens most historians would have chosen, but it’s a fine enough bounce pass.
When we’re introduced to Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino), she’s headed for a job interview at tiny Immaculata College. She’s not very long on experience, but luckily for her, the list of applicants is equally short. She’s hired by Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn) for four hundred and fifty dollars, but with a famous basketball referee (David Boreanaz) as a husband and a fervent love for the game, she would have coached for free. It’s just a matter of finding enough girls, which, in a school of four hundred, can be a difficult feat.
At first they come often and quickly, but after getting a taste of Rush’s coaching style, many file out as briskly as they came. It’s a whole lot of work, especially for an activity considered unladylike at the time. The coach brushes off the quitters and implores others to follow until she’s left with a solid and dedicated group. Unfortunately, the determination doesn’t translate to the scoreboard immediately. A lot of the early games are brutal massacres. The family members and friends of the players don’t even bother showing up, but after bringing aboard an assistant coach (Marley Shelton), the hard work starts paying off. The wins pile up and a sense of pride starts to build amongst the team, the other students and the nuns.
What follows is an uplifting story of triumph and fierce will. The players start taking the court not just for themselves but for the school that’s hemorrhaging money and facing a possible shutdown. There’s no money to travel, but the girls beat the pavement and do what it takes for the chance to live their dreams. If only the film gave us a chance to invest in their lives.
In order to get that lump in the back of your throat or the hair to stand up on your neck, a movie needs to give you the chance to care about the people living the moment. The Mighty Macs is fixated on Cathy Rush and to a lesser extent, Immaculata’s money problems. With less than ten girls on the team, the audience should be given some facts and quirks about each player. That doesn’t happen. Instead, we’re given pawns for Cathy Rush to live her dreams and Immaculata to avoid closing, which is a shame because we need a movie that explores what makes female athletes both different and similar to their male counterparts.
The Mighty Macs shines when it alters the common tropes of sports movies-- the motivational speeches, the screaming matches-- for a female point of view. Rush builds trust through telling a girl the truth about her awful lipstick and cohesion through conversations about weddings and buried hopes. Women want to win just as badly as men, but the spark that gets them there can often be very different. The film would have benefited from more of that careful observation in place of a few obvious and out of place voiceovers.
We often remember greatness through individual moments representative of the whole. Red Auerbach’s victory cigars are symbols of Celtic dominance. Tiger Woods’ Sunday red shirts are synonymous with victory. Babe Ruth’s famous called shot is the embodiment of his personality. For the real life Mighty Macs, the legacy left was one of jubilant nuns pounding on buckets as their girls blew out opponent after opponent. Sadly, it’s impossible to convey that in a movie; so, what we’re left with is a story of some nice Catholic girls and a hard-nosed coach who propelled their tiny school to a National Championship. It’s both honest and a misrepresentation. Still, as a way to spend a few hours, it’s passable enough. Long live the Mighty Macs.