The youngest Baby Boomers, poster children of Postwar America, would have been 15 in 1979; the oldest pushing 35. This isn’t new in generation theory—that there’s often as much difference at the margins of generations as there is between them. But they follow cycles on larger scales, on attitudes, and in events that define them. Collective memory draws together generations as they get older. In 1979, a 15 year old and a 35 year old might take a different tack on their Dad, they all remember the impact of Vietnam (it’s always war) on each of their lives.
The oldest Boomers would have been PFCs, new fathers, at the start of the war; the youngest would have seen these fathers come back, shattered. Forty years later Vietnam remains the defining event collective for their generation: those born any later than ‘64 remember ‘Nam as a spectre, a wisp of collective memory that isn’t theirs. That’s Gen-X: tiny by comparison, between major conflict and free of most of any. It’s the Coldest generation, but not the boldest; the world remembers Gen-X as Reagan’s babies, ushering in Millennials with a coup de grâce; an Australian winter; a rejoinder of gentle-going.
Breaking Away was the Boomers’ present to Gen-X: a love letter to life before. Unlike American Graffiti, which was neither funny nor poignant, Breaking Away fills its runtime with what feels like real stakes, humor and meaningful character development. It’s a reminder that humans are delicate beings that deserve meaningful connection; we deserve an antidote to loneliness. Breaking Away expertly bridges the generational divides across age, class, national origin and it tells a fun sports story, too. Though it isn’t really about sport; it never is.
There’s something ultradifferent about cycling as competitive sport that obliterates the generational divide: its competitors and fans are a natural outgroup. The only zeitgeist event within the sport is the Tour de France, and who really knows what’s happening? Lance Armstrong? Classic outgroup theory: if you’re not born into it, or if you don’t come across it as freak happenstance, you don’t—can’t—get it. It’s just riding a bike, right? It means something mpetitive, amateur cycling race for almost 60 years, mimicking the Indy 500 in its format.
Breaking Away handles this storytelling disadvantage gracefully by cleverly defining an ensamble cast. If Breaking Away was about Dave’s journey to win a local bike race…well that’s nice. Underdog stories usually do well, but for an American audience, the underdog would have to be playing football, or basketball, or baseball, a sport we as Boomers and Gen-Xers grew up on. If Breaking Away was about Mike’s inability to accept a lesser role in his group, a supporting cast member…well, that’s better. Cyril and Moocher, always loyal pals, went for what seemed like daily swims in the crag with their pals, but this story isn’t about them either, and all the work they did as b-players. This movie is clever because its conflict was always internal. Did we ever have a doubt that this team would win, together, no matter the stakes?
No, and Breaking Away is cleverer for it. It’s a normal movie with relatable, normal stakes, but it’s not about nothing. There’s real conflict here: who hasn’t felt like Dave before? Known a Mike? Been Cyril and Moocher simultaneously? Breaking Away happens to tell a story while in spite of watching its characters grow. It introduces a new culture to its audience (the cycling, again) while tapping into the geographic center of the US, relating these incongruous elements across generations. But there’s something for everyone (it’s perspective, dammit).
- The Boomers get to relate to how things were;
- Millennials can look back, now over 40 years later, and see that thats how things always are;
- And Gen-Xers can remember that they’re not totally forgotten
It’s incredibly hard to pull this off; most times you get American Graffiti.
I think the Silent Generation, dwindling in size since before 2019, must have been getting divorced at an all-time high in 1979; what we got is a winner in Kramer vs. Kramer that screams, “we get it!” at these legions of people lining up for their second or third chance at a meaningful relationship. “We see you!” shouted Hollywood. The year’s other nominees sort-of roughshod over each other and the expected direction of the Academy: Apocalypse Now—too similar to last year’s winner, The Deer Hunter; Norma Rae—still too socialist (bad!); All That Jazz—could have won, honestly, but maybe too meta for the Academy? No clue on this one. I’m unsure whether Kramer vs. Kramer was a mistake a pick du epoch. If you’re looking for a feel-good movie with depth, Breaking Away is a good bet, boomer.