Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Madison Movie: Deciphering Fact from Fiction

“It’s a movie.”  It’s a phrase one often says or hears when a movie has moments that are unbelievable, impossible, or just plain silly.  And for the majority of the time, I have no issue with this assessment.  After all, a major part of the appeal of movies is that it gives one an escape from their otherwise routine everyday life.  When “movie magic” becomes an issue, however, is when inaccurate or untrue parts of a movie covering a historical event are accepted as historical fact.  For this post, I will be focusing on the issues that arise from the movie “Madison.”  The movie has a plethora of parts that are historically inaccurate, spanning the movie quite literally from start to finish.  I’ve usually overlooked these, but in recent weeks I’ve heard people say things like Madison hosted the “first professional boat race” (it didn’t) or that the Madison Regatta “dates back to 1903” (it doesn’t , the first known organized boat race in Madison was in 1911, while the first modern Madison Regatta was in 1949) with the grounds of these claims being “well it’s in the movie…” so hopefully I can put some of these falsehoods to rest.
                Since the release of “Rudy’ in 1993, sports movies that are based on a true story have followed a very similar pattern: Take a memorable sports moment, twist  and add facts and events until the plot of the movie barely resembles the story it was based off of,  add a bunch of clichés about how the story’s protagonist refueses to give up on his or her goal although seemingly everyone around him or her is telling him or her to give up, and throughout the movie play licensed music from the time period of the movie as a constant reminder of when the movie was taking place.  The movie “Madison” certainly falls into this category.   As for the inaccuracies of the movie, let’s begin by looking at some of the major plot themes.

                Jim McCormick was not a Madison native nor did he ever live in Madison.  Although he was a regular in Madison and was well known and liked around the community (especially after the 1971 Gold Cup) he lived in Owensboro, Kentucky for most of his life.  The theme of a hometown hero with deep roots within the town driving his hometown boat to victory out of love for his community is simply false.
                The movie’s major theme of a town that is dying due to the declining use of river transport is more fitting for the Madison of 1871, not 1971.  While Madison was by no means an economic powerhouse during this time period (or any other period in post-Civil War America for that matter) it wasn’t because of the loss of barge traffic.  If anything, Madison was experiencing a bit of a small economic boom in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The IKE Powerplant came on line, bringing a number of jobs and actually increasing river traffic in Madison as barges delivered coal to the new plant.  Historic Madison, Inc. was founded in 1961 and with it the groundwork for the town’s modern tourism industry was put into place.  Also, a number of factories were opened in Madison at this time.  I’ve heard a number of people say that when they were attending Madison High School teachers had to all but beg the older students to stay in school and care about their grades because the promise of a decent paying factory job was always there.  While the warning of “most of those factory jobs will be gone” largely came true in later decades, in 1971 the economy of Madison wasn’t quite as difficult as it was shown.  Sure, the absence of an interstate in the town hurt back then like it does now, but the idea that the city was hurting due to the decrease in river shipping was about a century too late for this movie.
                The Miss Madison was nowhere near the struggling laughingstock as it is portrayed in the movie.  The team already had three podium finishes on the season coming into the Madison Gold Cup and the case could easily be made that the team was “due” for a victory.  Sure, the Miss Madison had some very lean years in the late 1960’s but the old hull was enjoying a bit of a renaissance as the decade turned.  A highway accident en route to the 1970 season opener in Miami proved to be a bit of a blessing in disguise  when boat designer  Les Staudacher came to help with the rebuild, and was able to correct and iron out many other knicks and imperfections that the boat had picked up in over a decade of racing.  When the boat rejoined the tour an obvious increase in speed could be seen by anyone within the sport.  That isn’t to say the Miss Madison wasn’t an underdog coming into the 1971 Gold Cup.  The team was, after all, still a small operation competing against deep pocketed owners with corporate sponsorship.  Despite this, the Miss Madison, as has often been the case throughout much of the team’s history, was able to compete with wealthier teams on the water and the idea that they were barely able to even make a showing in the previous races is stretching the truth.
                Jim McCormick didn’t leave the sport in the years previous to 1971 due to a wreck that took the life of his best friend.  McCormick did leave the Miss Madison team after briefly driving for them in 1966, but that was simply because he left to drive for other teams.  McCormick was also never the Crew Chief of the Miss Madison, although he was an owner for a number of years and during the 1971 season he was actually splitting time between driving duties for the Miss Madison and the responsibilities of owner of the Miss Timex entry.  With this in mind, the Skip Prosser and Buddy Baker characters in the movie are also fabricated.
                Harry Volpi did come to the aid of the Miss Madison team prior to the Gold Cup, but not in the manner which is shown in the movie.  The idea of using nitrous oxide for a boost in RPM’s was an accepted practice in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing by 1971, not the outrageous and dangerous idea that was shown in the movie.  In fact, the Miss Madison was one of the few teams to NOT use nitrous oxide boosters during the 1971 Gold Cup.  Instead, the Miss Madison team experimented with a fuel-alcohol system for a boost in performance.  This is where Harry Volpi comes in.  Volpi was one of the sport’s most renowned experts on Allison engines during this time, but was also without a team due to the fact that the team he had previously worked for  (the Miss Smirnoff) had left the sport.  The Miss Madison team brought in Volpi to assist in getting the bugs worked out of their fuel alcohol system, and the rest is history.
                Madison didn’t get the right to host the Gold Cup thanks to a blind draw, but the story behind how they got to host the Gold Cup is convoluted in and of itself.  The Madison Regatta committee put up a smaller than usual $30,000 bid to host the Gold Cup for 1971, but thanks to a confusion in when the date for when the bids were due, along with the fact that many race sites were timid to bid for the Gold Cup after the financial struggles San Diego faced in hosting the 1970 Gold Cup meant they weren’t going to be on the schedule for 1971 (by the way, San Diego trying to get on the schedule by knocking Madison off the schedule is another inaccuracy) meant that Madison’s bid was the only one in to the APBA offices at the time.  Of course, all of that might be difficult and slightly boring to put into a movie, so I’m willing to give the makers of Madison a pass on this one.  However, the story of Jim McCormick writing a check for money the city didn’t have and then the city scrambling to raise that money is simply made up.
                The 1971 Gold Cup race took place on July 4, not Labor Day Weekend.  The Sunday before Labor Day was the traditional date for the Madison Regatta for a number of years, but Fourth of July weekend has been the date for the Madison Regatta for every season since 1967, with the exception of 1998 when river conditions forced the event to be postponed until Labor Day Weekend.  I suspect this was done due to the fact that most of the riverside and crowd scenes of the movie were filmed during Labor Day Weekend, but the leaves don’t really start changing in Madison until late September so I don’t think that really made much difference.
                As far as I know, the Miss Madison crew never stole an engine out of a fighter plane on display and to be honest I can’t believe this scene made it past the original draft of the script let alone a filmed part of the movie that was included in the final edit .  Nearly every critic’s review I’ve read of “Madison” talks about how ridiculous this scene is, and to be blunt I would have to agree with them.
                The ABC Wide World of Sports broadcast of the 1971 Gold Cup was recorded, not live as was shown in the bar.  Very few Unlimited Hydroplane races have been broadcast on live television to a national audience.  The only one I can remember right off the top of my head was the 1997 Gold Cup race, which was shown live on ESPN 2 back in the days when that station was only carried on higher tier cable packages.  Obviously the main reason for this is that Unlimited Hydroplane racing doesn’t really have a wide national appeal, but also the unpredictable nature of the sport does as well.  Just look at this year so far when both the Madison and Detroit Final Heats took place more than an hour after they were scheduled due to water conditions.  Could you imagine the logistics and explanations that would have to take place if a network was demanding the Final be shown live at a certain point?
                Even in the epilogue there are inaccuracies.  First, the comment that the Miss Madison hadn’t “won a race since 1973” obviously isn’t the case.  When the movie was originally filmed in 1999 the team hadn’t won a race since 1993.  I’m not sure why they just didn’t say this, but maybe 1973 just sounds better.  Also, in between the filming and the release of the movie the Miss Madison won at Madison in 2001.  They were actually showing a trailer of the movie that year on the riverfront, and after Steve David drove the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison to victory a few people said “now they can film a sequel!”  Also, although Mike McCormick competed for a few years in the Unlimited Lights, he never competed in the Unlimited Class (although he was a crew member for many of his dad’s entries in the 1970’s and 1980’s, rising to the title of Crew Chief).
                These are just a few, like I said.  If I were to go over every inaccuracy in the move I’d pretty much have to go over every scene and the entire plot.  So the question becomes: what in the movie actually is accurate?  Aside from the obvious of the Miss Madison won the Gold Cup in Madison, one scene in particular always comes to mind.  In the opening scene where Mike McCormick hears the engine on the river then races down to the riverfront on his bicycle to watch the boats practice was an integral part of any Madisonian’s childhood for a number of years.  Anymore with expanded social media coverage of the sport, it seems like we know three weeks in advance whenever a team is planning on trailer firing their boat, but in the years before the internet there really wasn’t any way of knowing when the boats would be testing until they actually did it.  Therefore, the scene of hearing the Miss Madison’s engine then riding your bike down to the river to watch it do some testing laps became something of a rite of Spring for a number of years.  Aside from that, there was one point in the movie where a man pronounces Louisville “LOUGH-vul” and yes, that’s how people from Madison (myself included) pronounce it.  So there are at least two points of the movie that are accurate.
                So with all my critiques of the movie, one might be wondering of my opinion of the movie.  First off, it’s all but impossible for me to be objective on this film.  I love movies, I love hydroplane racing, and I love my hometown, so therefore the only major motion picture that has hydroplane racing as a main plot point, as well as one of only two movies to be filmed in my hometown, is going to be appealing no matter what.  If that wasn’t enough, I’m actually an extra in the movie (I’m in the crowd shots when the races are taking place and when the Miss Madison is coming back to the docks) so once again this movie is going to hold a special place for me no matter the quality.  With that said, “Madison” is by no means a great movie.  The numerous plot holes, script writing that swings from very cliché to downright ridiculous, and the numerous historical inaccuracies keep it from being so.   A couple times I’ve shown it to friends who aren’t familiar with hydroplane racing who have said something along the lines of “this is stupid, can we watch something else” about 45 minutes into the movie.  One strong point, however, is that the movie is very well acted.  Jim Caviezel, Mary MacCormack, and Bruce Dern all make the most of some shoddy writing and turn in great performances.  Even Jake Lloyd, who was much maligned for his performance in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” turns in a respectable showing and portrays a kid that really anyone who grew up in a small town can relate to.  “Madison” does have its appeal, especially for hydroplane fans but also for those who grew up in small towns or have fond memories of Summers with their dad.  So it’s a decent movie, just don’t use it as a reference for a historical argument.


  1. This movie has just appeared on Netflix and being the motorhead I am I watched it of course, and of course I immediately had to do a rudimentary search to see what "really" happened. This is a disturbing trend to overstate what are truly remarkable achievements that anyone who has truly worked hard for the slimmest of goals finds a bit insulting. I guess I am still happy the movie was made at all I find myself enjoying the research into the "true story".

  2. Nitro Methane was added to the fuel of Miss Madison before the final according to Mike McCromick

  3. "In fact, the Miss Madison was one of the few teams to NOT use nitrous oxide boosters during the 1971 Gold Cup."

    Mike tells me they did use Nitrous as well.

  4. The author of all this needs to get a job he's got way to much free time, it's a movie who cares what's true or false that's like saying everything in titanic was false you don't know you weren't there for any of it. For people to say that Madison was boring just tells me the lack of imagination of yourself and your friends. I bet the author is an anti- gun protester as well.