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Battle of the Sexes
First run Theater cinema

Battle of the Sexes dramatizes the 1973 high stakes tennis match between feminist campaigner Billie Jean King and self-proclaimed male-chauvinist-pig Bobby Riggs. With this exhibition match, King proved that professional female tennis players were equal to men in both their skill on the court and in their ability to draw crowds, ratings, and advertising dollars – and thus were deserving of the equal pay she and her colleagues had been demanding.

The film falters a bit with many of the typical oversimplifications found most docudramas, but ultimately it scores big, thanks to a number of critical factors. First and foremost are the two leads: Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs. Stone effortlessly sheds most of her familiar screen persona and creates a complex, nuanced portrait of the young athlete and icon. Carell has a slightly easier task, playing a man who delighted in performing the caricatured role he created for himself in the broadest possible ways, but Carell manages to make Riggs an intriguing multi-dimensional character as well. 

The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (scribe of The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours) sticks close to the basic facts and only occasionally interjects the type of cringe worthy, on-the-nose dialogue that often sinks this kind of fact-based period picture. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the husband and wife team who helmed Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks) achieve an excellent balance of tone and perspective, and they authentically recreate the period right down to the film stock.

The movie contextualizes the famous match by touching on many of the key events in women’s tennis that preceded it. This makes for a fully loaded two-hour film, but one that rarely feels overly explanatory, and it certainly never drags. The scope of the narrative results in less development of the secondary characters than I might have hoped for, but each role is so well cast it feels like we get more insight into the people surrounding King and Riggs than we actually do. 

But the picture’s best trick is its ability to create genuine suspense from a climax of which most audiences will know the outcome. Even if you were not alive in 1973, you know who won. Still, we get so invested in the characters and the contest that the recreated games manage to induce some sensation of what it must have felt like to watch this match live. And the conclusion sidesteps the type of saccharine sentimentality that all too often undercuts biopics, docudramas, and other movies about real life victories. Battle of the Sexes imbues the match it builds to with multiple layers of meaning, as it should. The victory on the court foreshadows future personal victories for King and future political victories for women. But the film’s ending places the athletic achievement front and center, which is exactly correct for a story about a professional athlete fighting for workplace equality.

Perhaps the real life outcomes of the personal relationships depicted in the movie made it impossible for the filmmakers to indulge in the all too frequent mistake of putting more emphasis on the personal side of their story than on the professional side.  But I still worried that the post-match moments of King and Riggs alone in their respective locker rooms was going to turn out much differently then the simple but excellent sequence we get.

In the end, Battle of the Sexes plays like a spin on the old story of The Tortoise and The Hare, with Riggs as the overconfident hare who doesn’t take his opponent seriously, despite the fact that in this case the tortoise is younger, more determined, in better shape, and far more at the top of her game than he. The film is also, like the previous year’s Hidden Figures, an entertaining telling of a small but vital chapter in contemporary American history, and an all-too timely reminder of both the progress made towards equality and the enormous amount of work there is left to do.

Twitter Capsule:
Falters a bit with many of the typical biopic oversimplifications, but ultimately scores big with dynamic lead performances, terrific balance of tone, and ability to create suspense from a climax we already know.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Simon Beaufoy

With: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Martha MacIsaac, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Jamey Sheridan, Tom Kenny, Matt Malloy, and Chris Parnell

Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Editing: Pamela Martin
Music: Nicholas Britell

Runtime: 121 min
Release Date: 29 September 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1