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‘Rudy’ (PG)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 13, 1993

Indiana has been very good to director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo. It's where they met as college roommates 25 years ago (at Indiana University) and it's where they set their 1986 high school basketball drama, "Hoosiers." Now the University of Notre Dame in South Bend provides the mythological underpinning of "Rudy," the latest Anspaugh-Pizzo collaboration.

"Rudy," set in 1975, is clearly in the inspirational mold of "Hoosiers," though it's less about winning than trying. As such, it's a sweet-natured family drama in which years of effort are rewarded by a brief moment of glory. Its corny, cartoonish finale makes "Rocky" look like "Bullwinkle." Still, you'll have to forgive the lump in your throat and the tear in your eye.

"Rudy" is based on the true story of Daniel Ruettiger -- known to family and friends as Rudy -- an undersize, under-talented working-class dreamer whose childhood aspirations -- to play football for Notre Dame -- have been consistently dashed by family, friends and educational institutions. Everyone sees Rudy (Sean Astin) as too poor, too small and too dumb to get into Notre Dame, much less play for its top-ranked team. His father (Ned Beatty), wanting to protect Rudy from the kinds of disappointment visited regularly upon the Ruettiger family, counsels, "Rudy, not everyone is meant to go to college."

But his best friend, Pete (Christopher Reed), has better advice: "Having dreams is what makes life tolerable." This is said after both have graduated from high school and its brief gridiron glories to jobs at the steel mill in their home town of Joliet, Ill. When Pete is killed in an industrial accident, Rudy decides that his dream-chasing days are now or never, and he heads for South Bend with a duffel bag and a truckload of determination.

Unable to get into Notre Dame, he is counseled by a school priest (Robert Prosky) to enroll at right-next-door Holy Cross College and prepare himself academically, which he does with the aid of a semi-nerd tutor (Jon Favreau). Rudy insinuates himself into the community -- working for Fortune (Charles S. Dutton), the head groundskeeper at Knute Rockne Stadium; painting the players' helmets gold as a member of the booster club; barging in on Coach Ara Parseghian (Jason Miller) to announce his intention to make the team.

To understand Rudy, one need only recognize the importance of Notre Dame -- particularly its football team -- to his Catholic family, which gathers religiously before the shrine of television to watch each game. Little wonder that Rudy's immersed in Fighting Irish football lore, the names and speeches of old forming a litany of hope and inspiration. Rudy is totally caught up in the mythology of the program and somehow manages to not only get admitted to Notre Dame, but to make the football team -- as a live practice dummy who will probably never suit up for a game.

Brutal as they are, the practice sequences are simply testimony to Rudy's doggedness -- or is that underdoggedness? -- and to the same spirit that he drew upon to leave home, to bring his grades up, to make the team and so on. Toward the end, however, the inspiration tends to go over the top. The crux of the drama is whether Rudy, on the practice squad for two years, will ever get a chance to actually suit up. It's down to the last game, against Georgia Tech, and the fact that this film got made precludes much surprise about the ending.

Shot on the campus of Notre Dame (the first time that's happened since Ronald Reagan played the Gipper in "Knute Rockne, All American" 53 years ago), "Rudy" serves up its own age of innocence, one that more closely resembles the mid-'50s than the mid-'70s. The finale was shot at halftime of last year's Notre Dame-Boston College game and gives the affair a certain authenticity. The sized-just-right Astin is quietly insistent as Rudy and the story requires only a brief suspension of disbelief. That's how it is with the best true stories.

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