Bicycling & Freedom in American Film: Breaking Away [From BA 42-500]

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"Dave’s attachment to his bike is a resistance that is purely existential, understandable to anyone

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“What’re you, an exchange student or something?” a young woman asks Dave Stoller early in Breaking Away.

He has just used a fake Italian accent while introducing himself to her, and though the accent is comical, on the campus of the University of Indiana in 1979, it is apparently sufficient. But Dave is not only not Italian, he’s a townie, or what the citizens of Bloomington call a “cutter,” after the town’s signature local industry of stonecutting. Taking some time off after high school and before whatever comes next, Dave spends his time idolizing the Cinzano cycling team, winning local races, and riding his bike around town while offering jaunty, Italianate greetings to the neighbors.

Breaking Away won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1979 and features some actors of note: a young Dennis Quaid glowers shirtlessly at the quarry; Daniel Stern, in his first role, does admirable work as the awkward Cyril; and Paul Dooley brings welcome energy to the role of Dave’s father, a used-car salesman rendered nearly speechless when he discovers that his son’s cycling preparations involve shaved legs. The acting, dialogue, and pacing are rough enough early on that one begins to wonder if 1979 was a weak year for screenplays, but the film gets better as it goes, and the screenplay reveals an admirable degree of care: the plot points of a Rocky-esque criterion race showdown between the cutters and some preppy college kids form the story’s backbone (with no Rocky sequels yet in existence in 1979, the narrative force of the first Balboa film had yet to be diluted), while the story also manages to trip lightly through the main beats of the relationship-imperiled-by-a-lie romantic comedy pattern. The film’s modest scale and earnest intentions keep the whole thing charming and low-key, though, and in its ensemble attack and 1970s palette, it was certainly source material for Richard Linklater’s more manic Dazed and Confused.

The cycling in Breaking Away, and it’s handling visually, will turn no one’s head. Outside of a lyrical ride mid-film in which the sympathetic driver of a Cinzano truck spontaneously sets a pace for Dave as he trains on a highway outside of Bloomington, there’s no particular flash to Dave’s bike, the way he rides it, or the way director Peter Yates films it. In our age of the computer-aided “camera” (those are virtual-reality quotes, not ironic ones) that can swoop anywhere and capture anything, however, it’s nice to see the old Eisensteinian strategies one in a while. It turns out that some handheld shots and crosscutting among riders still works fine for creating rising tension.

It’s also nice to see a depiction of bicycling-as-resistance unattached to the political and/or environmental causes it is paired with so often these days. Dave’s attachment to his bike—and to his idea of Italy, and his fake accent—is a resistance that, because it is purely existential, is understandable to anyone. Dave doesn’t want to become a stonecutter, but his life experience is limited enough that he has only a hazy idea of what other options exist. Among Dave’s friends, and especially with his father, “going to college” still connotes intellectual or social pretensions, so Dave has imagined himself as an Italian cyclist. People trying to escape their hometown destinies have certainly done things far crazier.

Dave’s Italian fantasy can’t last, but that doesn’t mean he’s headed for some kind of brutal defeat. Most of us, after all, have nursed our own idealistic fantasies of what riding the bike around town will be like, or how it will feel, or who we will become as a “bike rider.” Dave’s disillusionment comes courtesy of a chance, cruel meeting with the actual Cinzano cycling team, but it’s no different, really, from anyone’s first flat tire or crash. It sucks. Bikes turn out to be objects that can break, and break us. But Dave plugs away. He doesn’t give up the bike, and he doesn’t give up on becoming something more than a cutter. After all: if he were truly defeated, the movie couldn’t be called Breaking Away. 

Evan P. Schneider