'The Bronze' Explores A Heartbreaking Truth About Being an Athlete
As a former competitive gymnast, I've been anxiously awaiting the release of The Bronze ever since the comedy first hit the Sundance Film Festival over a year ago. Gymnastics was a major part of my life growing up, and rarely does a niche sport get big national attention from Hollywood. The last major gymnastics movie was 2006's Stick it. The Bronze, like Stick It, takes the comedy route to showcase an exaggerated version of a very serious sport. But something I didn't expect to see from the movie was a touching and more subtle storyline exploring the sometimes dark side of what happens when our favorite Olympic athletes fade from public view.
The Bronze is hilarious, raunchy, and clever. The story centers around the journey of Hope Ann Gregory (played brilliantly by Melissa Rauch), a small-town hero, whose gymnastics career was expected to be golden on the world's biggest stage. But after tearing her Achilles tendon during the competition, Hope became a Kerri Strug-like hero by finishing the meet for team USA to capture the bronze medal and the hearts of the nation.
Hope Ann Gregory returned to her home town of Amherst, Ohio, the brightest star, the most respected kind of American hero: the athlete who sacrificed their body to bring home a medal for their country.
The problem of course, isn’t in the fanfare, or the brief national celebrity (“I was on Dancing with the Stars” Hope proclaims in one scene), it’s the color of the medal itself. Even the allure of gold medalists can fade over time, and Hope’s bronze heroics at the Olympic games in 2004 which kept her afloat have faded by the time the movie opens. In an act of both over-the-top desperation, and child-like attachment to a security blanket, Hope wears her team USA warmups every single day. Still in her twenties, she fumbles through life in a bubble of ugly ego, misplaced entitlement, and truly hilarious and sad disregard for those who love her most.
As Hope downs her daily free milkshake, a perk of her fame at the local Amherst diner, we are introduced to Maggie Townsend (Helen Lou Richardson), the new hometown gymnastics hero who is on track to bring home the Olympic gold medal that would trump Hope Ann Gregory’s bronze and remove Hope from her throne as Amherst's most beloved star.
While the movie is a comedy and keeps the audience laughing end-to-end, it also touches on something deeper. Conveyed cleverly underneath the film's humor, is the all too common struggle of an athlete who had to face retirement at an age when most adults are just graduating high-school. The life of an athlete is one of the most unique and awe-inspiring, but also one of the most pressure-filled and challenging, and when the lights dim, and the podium carted away, many athletes can be left feeling alone, and lost, without purpose or a plan. Decades of training doesn’t leave much extra time for one to get ready for the rest of their life. For anyone who has competed in a sport to some degree of success and moved on from it, this can be a powerful storyline.
The world's greatest Olympians themselves can struggle to give up the high of competing, not just because of the fame and gold medals that can come with winning, but also because of the structure of training and the setting of and obtaining goals which become central to an athlete's life.
Michael Phelps, who retired after the 2012 Olympics as the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, made a surprise comeback to swimming in 2014. He told USA Today, he was "Bored" in retirement. When discussing the positives of returning, he mentioned the structure of training and competition, "It's good to have some structure back in my life. That's how I've always been. That's something I need." He said. Phelps admittedly struggled to stay on a clean path when he wasn't swimming, being arrested for a DUI, and eventually attending rehab.
Dame Kelly Holmes, who won double gold medals for Great Britain in at the 2004 Olympics has spoken openly about her struggles post-retirement, "Being a double Olympic champion didn't take it away." Holmes told The Express in 2014, "After retiring I was like any other athlete. You get to a point where you are lost, you lose your identity, you don't really know who you are any more, what you are doing."
The Bronze captures this isolating loneliness of “What now?” and wraps it inside of an anti-hero who is rottenly sour, unintentionally sweet, and dangerously funny. Half-way through the film, we get to the bottom of Hope’s angst-filled relationship with her former coach — who early in the story commits suicide, leaving Hope to coach Maggie Townsend through to the Olympics — after settling for Bronze, Hope tried to make a comeback that failed. She trained on a leg that wasn’t fully healed and was ultimately forced into retirement before she was ready — a blame she places with her coach and her father.
Hope spends most of her time in The Bronze time grappling with how to destroy Maggie's career, in order to keep her own star as high as possible, until she finds out she’ll be cut out of her coach's will entirely if she doesn’t get Maggie to the games. Maggie’s talent is pure, she is a perfectly pigtailed, sugarcoated Gymnastics star, with a toothy grin and cheerfully practiced interview lines. And as she takes to the floor to clinch the gold medal, the audience finally sees the internal struggle of Hope Ann Gregory as she knows she has accomplished greatness through her protege, but that it will come at a cost of losing her spot as Amherst’s greatest hero — after Maggie's floor routine, Hope knows her time will be over. That moment in which the audience might most expect a dramatic, curse-filled, fit throwing, comes and goes in a skillful, almost anticlimactic, fashion. Not often has a film, particularly a comedy, shown such unique passing of the torch, making The Bronze's portrayal of a common occurrence in sports so touching.
Underneath the risqué humor, cringeworthy behavior from the lead character, and perhaps the funniest gymnastics sex scene ever produced, The Bronze is a film that touches on the struggle of moving on from one's entire identity before they are ready, and the struggle of what happens when the flags come down, the anthem is done playing, the medals comes off from around one’s neck, and you place that first foot back onto the ground.
Images: Sony Pictures Classics (2)
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated Phelps had been arrested for a DUI twice when retired. He first arrest was in 2004 when he was not retired.