He's a hero to dozens, and Judge George Hatch reviews his life story.
"You belong on the cover of that Wheaties box, not Mary Lou Retton. But you just don't fit the Wheaties image. You come across as too gay."
That's one of the minor problems faced by Olympic legend Greg Louganis in Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story, a made-for-TV biopic based on his candid and inspirational 1995 autobiography recounting the self-doubt and lack of confidence that curtailed his personal life and professional career until he came out as an HIV-positive gay man a few months prior to the 1988 Olympiad.
This film version, however, sabotages Louganis's book by reducing every aspect of his life to clichés that could well have been drawn from a Queer for Dummies crib sheet.
Using genuine Olympic footage provided by ABC and NBC Sports, the film opens with the horribly miscalculated high-dive that caused Louganis to crack the top of his skull against the edge of the board before sinking into the pool. Underwater, he becomes the semi-conscious actor Mario López—sorry, let me rephrase that. Underwater, the semi-conscious athlete becomes actor Mario López, who flashes back to the troubled boyhood and turbulent teen years during which Louganis was searching for some direction in life. His half-Samoan parentage gave him a darker complexion that proved problematic once he reached school age, and his insecurities were further compounded by adoptive parents who, as portrayed in the film, were the stereotypical over-protective mother and the distant, often abusive father. Please refer to the aforementioned crib sheet.
An interest in dance and acrobatics made for a smooth transition to swimming, particularly diving, and Louganis was taken under the wing of former Olympian Dr. Sammy Lee, who thought young Greg had "the most God-given talent" he'd ever seen. Dr. Lee provided the extensive training that earned the 16-year-old Louganis a Silver Medal in the 1976 Olympics. By this time, Louganis knew he was gay, but his sudden worldwide popularity compelled him to lead a double life, frequently resorting to alcohol as a means of easing the social pain. A full athletic scholarship to the University of Miami brought him to the attention of Olympic diving coach Ron O'Brien (Bruce Weitz), along with the prospects of entering the 1980 Games. In college, Greg moved in with his first gay roommate, but their sub rosa relationship resulted only in more stress, as did Louganis's discovery that he was dyslexic.
When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1980, President Jimmy Carter barred the United States Olympic Team from competing in the Moscow Olympiad, dashing everyone's hopes for another four years. During this time, Louganis met and moved in with crafty and deceitful Tom Barrett (Jeffrey Meek), who took control of the athlete's career by becoming his manager and assuming power of attorney over his finances, image, and sports endorsements. The relationship quickly degenerated into a series of abusive power plays, with Barrett at one point brutally raping Louganis. This being the mid-1980s, AIDS quickly entered the picture with both men becoming infected. Louganis advised the sympathetic Coach O'Brien of his sexual preference and HIV-positive status, but was deemed healthy enough to continue training and to compete in the 1988 Olympics. In the '88 Games, Louganis won two gold medals for the platform and springboard events. Tom Barrett's early death was quickly followed by that of Louganis's father, but not before Greg and his dad tearfully reconciled their past differences.
Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story is the kind of film that gave TV biopics a bad rep. The screenplay by Alan Hines is superficial and contrived, and Steven Hilliard Stern's direction is as bland and cloying as Richard Bellis's score. I scoured the Internet Movie Database to find some recognizable credits for these people, and found that Bellis composed the score for Stephen King's It in 1990; I had to go all the way back to the 1960s and '70s to find director Stern's connection to shows like Quincy starring Jack Klugman, McCloud with Dennis Weaver, and Hawaii Five-O. The only compliment I can pay the director and editor Peter Svab is for their decision to use shot-on-video footage of Lopez and integrate it before and after the actual dives made by Louganis, making for more realistic transitions.
Mario López (Saved by the Bell) as Louganis is confidently masculine and looks terrific in a Speedo, but he should keep his clothes on and continue hosting every show on Animal Planet and reality TV's America's Most Talented Kid. He's attractive, congenial and has a knack for comforting children when they lose; otherwise he can't act to save his life—or this picture.
Playing the teenage Greg, Patrick David Young (Power Rangers In Space) is an embarrassment, with eyelashes aflutter and lisping more sibilant "esses" than is called for. Michael Murphy as Greg's father can be seen to much better advantage in Robert Altman's Tanner '88 with episodes frequently turning up on the Independent Film Channel; and Jeffrey Meek (Raven) plays the abusive Barrett with such moustache-twirling wickedness I was expecting at any moment to see López tied to a railroad track.
Should you be wondering if Greg Louganis sanctioned this sappy adaptation, he not only served as a consultant, but appears as himself at the very end, signing copies of his book for a couple of kids who were impressed by his athletic abilities and perseverance, and a young man in his mid-20s who used the biography as a gentle way of coming out to his father, who happened to be standing right beside him. Nice touch, but their obsequiously fawning thank-yous undermined the admittedly staged but underplayed sincerity of the two children before them.
I feel compelled to add an admonition here that any teenage boys struggling with their sexual identity—and any parents who may be concerned about their son's orientation—should read Greg Louganis's book and altogether avoid this film adaptation. I was particularly disturbed by the rape scene that, while brief and in no way explicit, ended with Lopez squatting naked in the shower as blood ran down the drain leaving no question that he had been brutally sodomized. Spousal abuse is not confined to gay relationships and this scene is in no way representative of honest, loving relationships, straight or gay.
With an average transfer, no extras or subtitles—and a price tag of $30!—I'd advise you to avoid Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story at all costs…even as a $3 rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Ariztical Entertainment
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