Downhill Racer is not a film about skiing; rather, it’s a film about a specific individual who just so happens to be a great skier and takes it very seriously. Downhill Racer is a character study, written by James Salter, with the titular racer being played by Robert Redford, with a supporting cast that includes Gene Hackman (his coach) and Camilla Sparv (his European fling).
David Chappellet (Redford) is a cocky, no-nonsense skier from Idaho Springs, Colorado who gets called in to be in a USA ski team that’s in mid-season in Europe. Right from the start, everyone gets to see how arrogant he acts, refusing to race if he isn’t placed higher on the race list. But once he impresses, he becomes more popular which only fuels his ego more. David Chappellet is a man who sees only the gold at the end reserved for the winners, and if someone gets in his way he refuses to acknowledge their existence.
The film shows us the character of Chappellet as objectively as possible, neither trying to paint a sympathetic portrait nor trying to show us a cold blooded being. Without much commentary (or even musical cues), we see Chappellet go about his various activities, showing us how the man acts and how he treats others. What these scenes actually show is how self-absorbed David is, a man only concerned with himself and winning. Even when he’s with his European girlfriend, Carole (Sparv), he seems aimed at only pleasing himself for the benefit of himself.
While I commend the film for focusing much time on its protagonist, this turns out to be the weakest part of the film. That’s not to say that these moments are not well done–they are, very well done, indeed—but they unfortunately do not feel like anything new or special. The film does not make most of David’s day to day routines anything more than what they are, rarely using music, and simply focusing on the character and events without commentary.
Where the film does excel is in its direction and cinematography; when snow-capped mountains and skiing are involved, I don’t think traditional ways of shooting are possible. Right from the start, we are shown mountains and snow, all well done by cinematographer Brian Probyn. Director Michael Ritchie goes from traditional shots to cinema verite, where he gives us a sort of documentary feel whether we’re deep in the action or at a press conference. While plenty of regular scenes have excellent angles and transitions (not to mention inspired editing by Richard Harris), the moments of actual skiing stand out: close-ups, point-of-views, and wonderful tracking. Even when looking at the action through a televised broadcast, we follow the skiers as they dangerously speed past down the mountain slopes; the opening credit sequence in particular shows off many great shots of skiing.
Something else to note is that the music (by Kenyon Hopkins) is very odd, since it sounds like something you would hear in a late ‘60s spy thriller or television program, but not a sports film. However, it’s the absence of music that might be more telling and important to note. Even in moments of David seeing his father or having dinner or talking with his team mates, music never seems to prop up very much.
Downhill Racer shows us the opposite of a team player, the man who only cares about himself, with winning the gold the only thing on his mind. While it does a very good job at showing us an arrogant man who ignores most of those around him, it doesn’t do it in a way that feels important or exciting; depending on how you see it, this distant-but-intimate way of telling the story could work in the film’s favor or cause it to be less interesting. However, the film truly shines in its moments of sport, when skiers fly past the camera, when sports casters comment on the action, and when danger can happen at any false turn. And just like the film, it’s the protagonist David Chappellet who shines best when skiing downhill, personifying the ideal of risking it all to be the very best.