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Robert Redford called me this week (twice, actually), urging me to vote for a particular congressional candidate in next week’s election. I expect a call from my congressman this weekend, urging me to go see The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Bagger Vance is the latest film from Redford (A River Runs Through It, The Horse Whisperer), and it perfectly summarizes his style: magical, mystical, new age spiritualism set against a heartbreakingly beautiful landscape.

Inheriting a Golf Course

Will Smith and Matt Damon as Bagger and JunuhBagger Vance is a golf movie set in Savannah, Georgia, during the Great Depression. It’s told as a heart attack-induced memory of Hardy Greaves (Jack Lemmon) as he collapses on a golf course. He drifts back to when he was a boy, watching one of the greatest exhibition tournaments ever....

Mr. Invergordon was one of the wealthiest Savanans back then. He had just finished building a world-class golf course when the stock market crashed, leaving him in crippling debt. He committed suicide, leaving his property and his debts to his daughter Adele.

Adele (Charlize Theron) faces losing the golf course to the bankers, and getting only 10 cents on the dollar, if she can’t start paying back her daddy’s debt. Under this pressure she gets the idea to host an exhibition tournament. She’ll invite the two best American golfers, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, to draw in the big crowds.

Hagen and Jones agree to come, and the town council agrees to support Adele’s tournament, on the condition that she also invite a local boy, someone to represent Savannah in the big match. Our narrator Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief) is only about 10, but he speaks up at the town meeting, naming his own favorite golfer, Rannulph Junuh, as the perfect candidate.

Local Boy

Junuh (Matt Damon) played a mean game of golf back in 1916. But that was many years ago, before the Great War, before the shell shock and survivors’ guilt. Now he spends his time getting drunk and playing poker. He’s not the same man anymore, especially when it comes to golf. Refusing Adele’s plea, Junuh sums it up perfectly. “I lost my swing,” he says.

But out of the mist one night appears a tall negro wearing a leather hat, offering to be Junuh’s caddy in the tournament. The man is Bagger Vance (Will Smith), and he seems to know a lot about golf. He thinks he can help Junuh get ready for the tournament.

Bagger Vance

It’s worth noting that The Legend of Bagger Vance largely glosses over the issue of racism. Although steps were taken toward racial harmony after the Civil War, those gains were lost by the time this movie takes place. Bagger is treated more fairly and equitably than seems accurate for the time and place. Granted, this movie is not about race, but it feels like there is some rewriting of history going on, which may displease some audiences. (It’s interesting to note that Bagger himself only swings the club once. Perhaps this is a subtle acknowledgment of a race or class barrier to a white man’s game.)

The character of Bagger is interesting, and he’s given depth and soul by Will Smith. He’s more than a caddy to Junuh. He’s a wise man, a spirit guide, a court jester, and a golf philosopher.

As wise man and spirit guide, he knows how to how to help Junuh put his life back on track, how to help him find his “authentic” swing. As court jester he gets to tweak, insult and criticize the fragile hero, who otherwise couldn’t handle criticism, especially from a negro.

As golf philosopher, Bagger has some of the corniest dialogue in the movie. “Inside each and every one of us is our one true, authentic swing,” he says. “You can’t make that ball go in the hole. You hafta let it.” After all, “golf is a game that can’t be won, only played”.

Golf Is Life?

The whole notion of golf as a metaphor for life is a stretch. It’s the kind of sentiment you’d expect to see on a desk calendar, sold on Father’s Day at Nieman Marcus. The sentiment is poured on pretty thick, especially for those of us who aren’t golf afficionados.

And yet, the movie survives. It is enjoyable in spite of its heavy sentimentality. Part of the credit goes to Smith and Damon, both good actors and enjoyable to watch (although Damon can do less with his dour character than Smith can with Bagger). Another good performance comes from 12-year old Moncrief, a boy from just outside of Savannah acting in his first film.

Most of the credit, though, has to go to Redford. The softspoken Buddhist morality, the magical music, and the golden cinematography, all bear Redford’s unique signature. If you enjoyed A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer, you’ll probably like The Legend of Bagger Vance. Even if you hate golf.