Great Underdog Movies That Have Nothing To Do With Sports

Voting Rules
Vote up the underdog stories you can't help but root for.

Hollywood loves a good underdog story, especially when it comes to sports. We've seen them in boxing (Rocky), ice hockey (Miracle), football (Rudy), basketball (Hoosiers), baseball (The Bad News Bears), and even bobsledding (Cool Runnings). Those are just a few examples. There are many, many more. These films get audiences rooting for the little guys, and cheering on those occasions where they win.

Not all underdog movies are about sports, though. Some of the greatest ever made have been about other subjects, ranging from lawsuits, to historical battles, to efforts to unionize a group of factory workers. The following films tell stories about underdogs in these and other situations. They may not be about sports, but they do a fine job of putting viewers on the edge of their seats, hoping that the underdogs will triumph. Some do, some don't. All of them nevertheless take on a massive challenge that initially seems impossible. 

Photo: Gattaca / Sony Pictures Releasing

  • 1
    76 VOTES

    Gattaca takes place in a futuristic society where people are divided into one of two categories. Some were created through genetic advancements, whereas others were created the old-fashioned biological way. Ethan Hawke portrays Vincent Freeman, one of the latter. As such, he's treated like a second-class citizen due to imperfect genes. Yearning to become an astronaut, he hatches a scheme to impersonate a “valid" and join the company that launches shuttles into space. Jude Law co-stars as Jerome Morrow, the paralyzed man who provides him with blood, hair, and urine samples to fool everyone.

    Trouble finds Vincent when a murder occurs and a piece of DNA evidence found on the scene matches what he's been getting from Jerome. Suddenly, he's got detectives hot on his trail. Now in a predicament, he needs to clear his name and find a way to fulfill his dream, against all odds. Vincent does end up triumphing, but not before a lot of drama takes place. Thanks to a sympathetic doctor who realizes he's done just fine by his natural genetic origins, he gets to partake in a space mission, armed with a lock of Jerome's hair, just in case he needs to continue the ruse. 

    76 votes

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  • 2
    46 VOTES

    Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), the main character in October Sky, is a teenager in a West Virginia coal mining town. His father John (Chris Cooper) assumes both his sons will follow in his footsteps, working in one of those mines. Homer has other interests, though. After seeing Sputnik 1 in the sky above, he develops a passion for tinkering with homemade rockets and an ambition to somehow work for NASA someday. John views this as completely impractical, making every effort to discourage his son.

    October Sky is a compelling look at socioeconomic class and how it can aid or impede ambition. Because the Hickams come from a working-class area with few opportunities outside that mine, there is little reason to believe Homer could end up doing something so prominent. He isn't attending a school that specializes in advanced studies, and affording the college education required to meet his goal seems out of the question. Homer's talent and dedication overcome that, as he wins a science competition, receiving scholarships as a result. The movie is based on a true story. As revealed at the end for anyone who doesn't already know, Homer Hickam went on to become a NASA engineer. 

    46 votes

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  • Hidden Figures pays tribute to three Black women who played a vital role in America's space program, but didn't get the recognition they deserved until many years later. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) work in NASA's West Computing Group. Their coworkers are mostly white men, the majority of whom look down on them, despite their superior math skills and computer savvy. 

    The movie charts what happens to these women as they fight systemic racism (and, for that matter, sexism) to help advance America's space program. Katherine eventually works herself into a position where her ideas are valued, Dorothy heads up a computer division, and Mary lands a position working on the Mercury capsule. Hidden Figures shows how these women had to be twice as good as their white male counterparts in order to get even half the opportunity. In the process, it reminds us that talent and ability are immune to color and gender, and that the contributions of anyone with great skill should be valued. 

    61 votes
  • 4
    51 VOTES

    The Insider is based on a true story that rocked America. Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco company executive who decides to blow the whistle on his former employers. He's got documents proving they knew cigarette smoking was addictive and dangerous, but did nothing to change their product. He takes his story to 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) and producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), hoping they will help him expose what has taken place. 

    That task proves difficult. Wigand is threatened and intimidated, the tobacco company pressures CBS to drop the segment, and threats of lawsuits make everyone anxious. The Insider is a riveting exploration of how a multibillion dollar industry uses all its resources in an effort to crush the “little guy” who could shine a light on their misdeeds. Director Michael Mann emphasizes the idea that because these corporations have so much money, it's easy to wear down anyone who attempts to challenge them. Wigand's story eventually gets out, but in the New York Times rather than on CBS. 

    51 votes

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  • The Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire follows Jamal (Dev Patel), a young man from one of the poorest sections of Mumbai. To say he's dirt poor would be an understatement because he can't even afford dirt. Through flashbacks, we see the many hardships he's faced in his life, including being exploited by adults as a child, having his mother die, and seeing his brother veer toward gang life. Jamal's journey eventually leads to the most unlikely of places - a seat in the contestant's chair on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

    One of the story's implications is that Jamal may not be well-educated in a formal sense, but he's learned enough from the School of Hard Knocks to earn a shot on that TV show. Slumdog Millionaire builds consistent tension as he answers more and more questions correctly, getting closer to that top prize. Because we've witnessed so many of the problems he's encountered, it's crystal clear what winning a million dollars would mean to someone who grew up without two sticks to rub together. The story ends with Jamal answering the final question correctly, winning the cash, and setting off to start a new life with girlfriend Latika (Frieda Pino), who has gone through so much with him. 

    67 votes

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  • 6
    81 VOTES

    300 features Gerard Butler as Sparta's King Leonidas, who receives a message indicating that Persia’s leader, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), intends to invade his country, turning the women and children into slaves. In fact, he's supposedly sending 1 million troops to carry out this invasion. Leonidas only has 300 of his best soldiers backing him up. He therefore devises a plan to build a wall that will force the enemy troops to pass through a narrow stretch of land, where they can presumably be defeated in waves.

    Lots of violent mayhem occurs, all of it stylishly executed by director Zack Snyder. The thrill of 300 comes from knowing Leonidas and his men are impossibly outnumbered. There is no logical way they should be able to win. The plan makes a certain amount of sense in that it limits the number of Persians they'll need to fight at any given time. But it also means they risk becoming exhausted after a while. Against all odds, it just barely works, with Leonidas delivering the final blow to Xerxes via a spear right to the face. It's a rousing, cheer-worthy finale that reminds viewers of the old adage, “It ain't over ‘til it’s over.”

    81 votes

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