I'm not a golfer but I need Baggar Vance to help me get my swing back. The same way that the mystical caddy played by Will Smith helped Rannulph Junnuh (Matt Damon) realize that all he had to do was to get out of his own way to reclaim his golf game in Robert Redford's 2000 film--and in doing so, reclaim his life--I need that spiritual teacher to somehow get me back on track.
When I first saw The Legend of Baggar Vance I thought it was a fair to middling work that had some good elements, but after watching it recently I think it might be Redford's greatest film. From fade in to fade out it seemed a perfectly realized work: acting, writing, cinematography, casting, music. Mostly it was the emotional power of the movie that floored me. No doubt because of the kind of year I've had...
Junnuh is Georgia's most promising young golfer before going off to the First World War. He returns traumatized, a different man, and all he can do is let everything fall away, including his beautiful girlfriend Adele (Charlize Theron). Living a shadowy life on the outskirts of town, all he really wants to do is drink (I can relate). Adele is trying to recover her family's lost fortune by holding an exhibition match between the two greatest golfers of the era, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan, with a a grand prize of $10,000, at the golf resort her father built as the Depression struck, but she wants a native son to amp things up for the local Savannah population, so she sets in motion a scheme to get Junnuh to play. Junnuh flat out refuses at first... but then starts entertaining the notion. He's trying to hit golf balls, shanking and hooking them with no control whatsoever into the dark void of the humid Georgia night, when Baggar Vance (Will Smith) appears--a mysterious traveller with a suitcase who announces that he will be his caddy.
This is when things get interesting because Jeremy Renner's screenplay (from Steven Pressfield's novel) is based on the Mahabarata, the part of the Bhagavad Gita where the warrior hero Arjuna (junnuh) is frozen with fear before a great battle, and the god Krishna appears as Bhagavan (Baggar) to help him find his path and become the warrior he was meant to be.
And so begins the epic golf match. Junnuh plays poorly at first and after the first round is far behind, but in the second Baggar helps him find his "authentic swing" and he catches fire, playing brilliant golf effortlessly. He makes up a lot of ground and, miraculously, by the third and final round it's a three way competition. And then Junnuh takes his will back, disregarding Baggar's advice. He starts playing poorly again, and shanks the ball deep into the forrest. When he finds the ball, Junnuh can only stand there in anguish. It seems utterly impossible that he can ever hit the ball and get back onto the fairway and into the match. This is where Baggar finds him, caught in the throes of a full blown flashback of the war, completely unravelling--and this is where the moment of reckoning occurs. It's time to lay his personal demons down, he tells Junnuh, and just be the golfer he was always meant to be…."Now strike that ball, Mr Junnuh, and don't you hold nothin' back."
The movies that make us cry do so because they touch some visceral personal or universal truth or situation. Though I've never been to war--except for the one raging inside me--I felt that I understood Junnuh's pain as well as his fear. For me it had been a year when jobs and projects vaporized and nothing lined up no matter how hard I tried. Ideas and inspiration came and fell away just as quickly. Maybe it was my age, maybe it was the world. Maybe the fact that the industries I've always worked in have been contracting and changing for a decade and I no longer knew where I fit in. Everything was in some transition, everything was unknown. My mother was at the end of her life and I dreaded her passing. And there was my son, struggling terribly in school with his ADHD--and there was me, watching his self-confidence erode as my own seemed to be vanishing along with his. My wife was worried about both of us. I was trapped deep in my own thicket of fear, confusion, and depression, and the shot out seemed increasingly hopeless.
The shot that Junnuh hits is exactly what it needs to be--perfect--vaulting him right back into the match, and then Baggar stuns everyone by leaving Junnuh before he plays the final hole. It now hardly matters who will win because whatever happens, Baggar knows that Junnuh will be fine. As Krishna says to Arjuna in the Gita, "All roads lead to me in the end."
Like Junnuh, I feel that somewhere there is another run waiting for me. My moment of reckoning is coming, and when it does I want to strike that ball and not hold anything back, but it will not happen unless I can lay my baggage down.
They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Baggar Vance, where are you?