Personally, I’d rather slice into the deep rough than have some mystical caddie blowing hot air in my ear about the symbolic meaning of my golf swing. If you read Steven Pressfield’s 1996 novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, you know that the title character isn’t just a caddie but a godly personification of the epic Hindu text Bhagavad-Gita. You also know that the fictional golf golden boy Rannulph Junuh isn’t just some soul-destroyed World War I hero who’s lost his authentic golf swing, but Arjuna, an Indian warrior in need of spiritual guidance. As Bagger says in the book: “Before Time was, I am. Before Form was, I am.” Holy best-selling New Age prattle. Before the movie is, I am outta here.
Luckily, Robert Redford did not make the movie version of Bagger Vance that I feared. As a director, most notably in his great, underappreciated Quiz Show, Redford has the gift of cutting through mumbo jumbo to find the soul of a tale. Junuh, played with a seductive aura of privilege by Matt Damon, is a legend in Savannah, Georgia, in 1916. He has looks, intelligence, money, a tournament-winning golf style and the prettiest girl in town, Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron). But the war damages Junuh’s psyche. Back from the trenches, he uses alcohol to retreat from Adele, from life, from golf. Then, in 1931, Adele and Savannah call on Junuh for a favor. Adele’s father, a suicide casualty of the Depression, has left her the Krewe Island Golf Resort. To save the place from going belly up, Adele organizes an exhibition match between two golf legends, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (a superbly wry Bruce McGill). Savannah’s civic leaders demand a local boy to take on the Goliaths. Ten-year-old Hardy Greaves (the sweetly guileless J. Michael Moncrief) keeps a scrapbook on Junuh and pleads for his idol. Adele offers sex. But Junuh’s decision to get back in the game is motivated by a more mysterious source.
His name is Bagger Vance (Will Smith), a stranger who appears one night when Junuh is on the driving range and who offers his services as a caddie. For “five dollars, guaranteed,” Bagger will help Junuh get back his lost swing. Thanks to a charmingly low-key performance by Smith and a screenplay by Jeremy Leven (Don Juan DeMarco) that goes lighter than the book does on lofty pronouncements, Bagger isn’t the albatross he is on the page. Redford slyly eases humor into the proceedings. He is also blessed with Theron, a live wire who has the acting chops to match her looks. Hello, gorgeous. ut the focus is on the match — thirty-six holes played over two days, with reporters, visitors and all of Savannah breathing hotly down the necks of the golf champs. Redford’s films, from Ordinary People to The Horse Whisperer, always start with a pungent sense of place. Ace cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (GoodFellas) evokes old Savannah in all its verdant glory. Redford revels in the etiquette of the game’s rules; in the crisp, formal dress of the players; in the concentration required for precision performance. Though duffer Damon clearly is green on the greens — PGA master Tim Moss gave him a crash course — the more experienced McGill and Gretsch deftly suggest the differing swing styles that also help define their characters. “Entertainment — that’s what the people want,” says Hagen. But it isn’t the merchandising of golf that interests Redford, it’s the art of the game. In one breathtaking scene, Jones, oblivious to the crowd, raises his club for a glorious, gliding swing that shows even fallible humans can achieve a state of grace.
“Play your own game,” Bagger tells Junuh. The point isn’t lost on Redford, who once had considered playing Junuh himself, with Morgan Freeman as Bagger, in an older-and-wiser take on the story that might have struck more resonant chords. Still, Junuh’s odyssey on the links stirs undeniable excitement as Redford lofts this heartfelt fantasy over the trap of banality to create a true sense of wonder. Despite sentimental seepage in Rachel Portman’s score and in the prologue and epilogue featuring Jack Lemmon as the older Hardy, Redford plays the game of filmmaking to reveal what he holds sacred: story, character, feeling, thoughtful pacing, and an alertness to nuances of honor and shame that most movies skip in the rush to the rush. In this new millennium, Redford’s game couldn’t be less trendy or more vitally alive.