The central appeal of sports movies is – generally speaking – their declaration of unbridled triumph. No matter the sport, the characters, or the era in history, all sport movies – at least those since Rocky – tend to be about an underdog or has-been or shamed athlete rising up against all odds to triumph over, or at least match, a plainly superior rival. We love to see our heroes win, and we love the little ego boost their victory gives us; with enough work and training and focus, one can win any game.
So it’s curious that Thomas Carter’s When the Game Stands Tall (a baffling title to say the least) should be about the exact opposite. It still ends with the requisite Big Game, and since the film is based on true events, I’m not spoiling anything to say that our heroes essentially win the day. But When the Game Stands Tall inverts the usual sports movie ego boost, making itself less about triumph and more about humility. Most films are about winning in the face of adversity, and learning to believe in your power. When the Game Stands Tall is about the struggle to remain humble in the face of constant victory.
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I suppose I can appreciate this inversion; it’s not something I’ve seen before, although this particular film certainly could have benefited from a more energetic approach. When the Game Stands Tall is a startlingly somber, bland, humorless affair about a pointedly somber, humorless coach, and how his humorlessness and gosh-darn serious attitudes are ultimately what his players need. They need a form of togetherness that none of them are allowed to smile through, all to overcome the pain of losing a 151-game-long winning streak that has come to define not only the players, but the entire community. The lead character, Coach Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) smiles only twice in the film. I counted. He sells a hard-edged form of camaraderie that he seems to have borrowed partly from the military (during combat, the only thing that matters is the solider next to you) and partly from the New Testament.
And make no mistake, this is an outright Christian movie. To the small real-life Northern California town where the action takes place, high school football is the only thing more ubiquitous than Baptist churches, and the two have come to overlap and intersect in everyone’s lives. Coach Ladouceur not only coaches the team, but teaches Bible study during the day. The illustrate the film’s central dramatic notion: One of the players – taking the film’s Christian lessons to heart by being quiet and humble in the face of victory – is being pressured by his semi-abusive father (Clancy Brown) to break a high school record for the number of touchdowns in one game. There is a scene wherein Brown talks to Ladouceur about the record, bragging openly about how great his son is. Lacoudeur announces that Brown’s son recently wrote an essay on a passage from the Book of Matthew. The contrived on-screen clash of ethos was so sharply pronounced in this scene, that more than one critic in my screening scoffed out loud.
What’s more, much of the interstitial scenes of the players at home play like snippets from after-school specials. Director Carter stages impoverished black communities like miniature high-school-level one-act plays, soundtracked by random hit rap songs written 10-15 years before the action of the film. While I love Montel Jorden’s “This is How We Do It,” I think we need to have a moratorium on using it in feature films. Also, to hammer home the usual football movie trope that football is often synonymous with combat (watch any football movie to see more evidence on that), the teen players visit injured soldiers in a VA hospital. I get what Coach was getting at, but the scenes are the worst kind of manipulation.
When the Game Stands Tall still possesses the basic pleasures of a sports movie – the players do indeed get to triumph in the end, even if the triumph is inverted – but those pleasures are muted, bogged down not only by the film’s (admittedly interesting) message, but also by flat filmmaking and a general lack of levity. It’s so determined to tell a story of honest, down-home, working class Christianity, that it misses the opportunity to pull out the stops for something truly dramatic. The dialogue is stagey, the acting is somber (Laura Dern is wasted in the role of the doting mom), and the overall film is bland. The game can sit down now.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly Trolling articles here on Crave, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.