Mark Reviews Movies

When the Game Stands Tall


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Thomas Carter

Cast: Jim Caviezel, Alexander Ludwig, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown, Matthew Daddario, Jessie Usher, Joe Massingill, Ser'Darius Blain, Stephan James

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 8/22/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 21, 2014

The Inspirational Speech before the Big Game is a movie tradition as hoary as the sports movie itself. When the Game Stands Tall comes out of the gate with an inspirational speech, and one might notice that the phrase is not capitalized in this mention of it. That's because it's not the Inspirational Speech but one of several stirring speeches that we hear over the course of the movie. By the end of the movie, everyone is properly inspired. Even the announcer of the third Big Game concludes his duties by pointing out that he has been inspired.

We get the sense that screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith (adapting the book of the same name by Neil Hayes) ran out of material for the inspirational speeches about halfway through the writing process. There comes a point when the coach, who gives the majority of those talks, basically becomes mute. He stands on the sidelines or wanders through the locker room and simply looks at his players without a trace of emotion. This coach is so effective at the Inspirational Speech that he has perfected the art of giving rousing glances.

It's easy to joke about this kind of material, but in all honesty, the movie actually fulfills some of the promises of those lectures when it finally stops giving them. We've heard the old saying about the individual's role in a team (Here, it's stated as, "Team isn't about 'I;' it's about 'us'"), and a lot of sports movies fall into the nearly unavoidable trap of making a team's success wholly dependent on one or a select group of players.

At the climax of the final Big Game here (which comes far too long after the movie's natural climax—the second Big Game—has spent up whatever investment we might have had in this story), we're set up to believe that the story has become that of one player. We know a reversal of that expectation is coming, but the anticipation of the turnaround doesn't change the fact that Smith and director Thomas Carter find a way to make the moment about the identity and quality of character of the team as a unit.

"It ain't about football," Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) tells his team at one point, and another of his repeated phrases is, "It's just a high school football game." We see the real Ladouceur saying the first thing during footage that plays alongside the closing credits (Yes, it's another sports movie based on a true story that shows us how easily a documentary about the same subject could have been made instead). There's no reason to doubt the sincerity of the real man or the character in these pronouncements, but the movie is an entirely different matter.

Everything is about football. Every personal setback, medical emergency, or tragedy is just what happens in between one season, game, or practice and the next. When Bob suffers a heart attack that the doctor dubs "the widow-maker," his son Danny (Matthew Daddario), who plays on the team, is devastated that Bob won't be able to coach him. The team seems more upset when they lose a game than they are when one of their teammates is senselessly murdered.

To be fair, though, the game they lose means the end of a 12-year, 151-game winning streak for De La Salle High School in Concord, California. It's an impressive, unmatched (as of yet) feat, for sure, but compared to Bob's near-fatal heart attack or the deaths of one player's parents or the murder of a teammate, losing the streak seems pretty inconsequential. Also in the realm of disproportionate responses is a scene in which the father (Clancy Brown) of the team's star player (Alexander Ludwig) punches his son in front of the team and a group of fans. Everyone just stands there, seeming to believe that their looks of shocked disapproval are going to remedy a clearly abusive home life.

These events are just brief pauses before the movie gets to a montage of the players training or the team getting back to winning, lengthy sequences on the field against tougher opponents (The other schools in their conference refuse to play them, assuming that the team is somehow cheating), and Bob's limited supply of clichéd sayings about character-building. He has his own problems, of course, in the form of a deteriorating relationship with his wife (Laura Dern), who wants him to spend more time at home but changes her mind as soon as his doctor gives him the go-ahead to start coaching again.

When the movie ignores football, it suggests that there's a more involving story just under the surface about the pain and insecurity of a group of teenagers trying to find their place in the world. In Bob's classroom, there's a theological discussion (The movie doesn't hide its religious bent, but it doesn't preach, either) about the age-old questions of "why bad things happen to good people" and "why people who work hard don't always succeed." In these scenes, When the Game Stands Tall provides a sense of why Ladouceur—as a character and in reality—is an inspiring figure worth examining. It's a shame the movie is more interested in observing him watch football.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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