When the Game Stands Tall

Success breeds cool sunglasses.

Success breeds cool sunglasses.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Tri-Star) Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig, Clancy Brown, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James, Matthew Daddario, Joe Massingill, Jessie Usher, Matthew Frias, LaJessie Smith, Richard Kohnke, Chase Boltin, Gavin Cassalegno, Adella Gautier, Terence Rosemore, Deneen Tyler, Anna Margaret.. Directed by Thomas Carter

Football is truly a metaphor for America, or at least America’s ideal image of itself. Individual achievement is admired and encouraged, but it is teamwork that eventually wins games.

De La Salle High School in Concord, California, is the most dominant high school football program in the nation in 2003. They have won 151 straight games – a decade without a loss – the longest streak in any sport at any level in history.  Coach Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) has just won yet another state title. Offers to coach for NCAA Division 1 college teams are coming in by the bucket load but he has no interest in moving up to the next level. He tells his wife Bev (Dern) that he can do more good for the young men at this age than he can for college-age kids.

The stress though is getting to Ladouceur although only his wife and his best friend and assistant coach Terry Eidson (Chiklis) seem to notice. Pretty soon though Coach Ladouceur notices big time – a major heart attack lands him in the hospital where his no-nonsense cardiologist tells him in no uncertain terms that he has to take it easy for awhile – no spring football.

The senior class is already looking ahead, with star running back Terrance “T.K.” Kelly (James) urging his best friend Cam Colvin (Blain) to come up with him to the University of Oregon like they always had planned, although Colvin is devastated by his mom’s illness and death. The junior class is getting ready to take the reins of the next De La Salle team, with tailback Chris Ryan (Ludwig) gunning for a state scoring record and the coach’s son Danny (Daddario) finally getting a chance to shine as a starter at wide receiver, although the talented and arrogant Tayshon Lanear (Usher) derides him as getting an opportunity only because of who his father is.

A body blow is dealt to the team when Kelly is senseless murdered the day before he is to drive up to Oregon to start summer practice. Ladouceur, speaking at the young man’s funeral, admits to being lost.

He’s not the only one. The team isn’t practicing with the same purpose that they did, and that had been going on even before Kelly’s murder. The program is being accused of cherry-picking players (an accusation that has dogged De La Salle even before the film takes place) and some schools refuse to play De La Salle, so for their first game of the 2004 season they travel to Bellevue, Washington to take on Bellevue High School, the Washington State champions the previous seasons. The team loses and the streak, a big part of De La Salle’s identity, is over.

The devastation of their coach’s illness, the death of a teammate and the loss of the streak threatens to overwhelm the team. Ryan, who is playing well, is driven by his overbearing dad (Brown) to achieve the scoring record no matter how it affects the team. There is bickering and doubt. Suddenly, Ladouceur understands that this isn’t about a game anymore.

One of the most cliche-ridden genres in the movies, perhaps second only to romantic comedies, is the true sports drama. When the Game Stands Tall is not immune to those cliches and that hurts the movie overall. Certainly it has led to critics to savage the movie (see the Rotten Tomatoes rating below) and the criticism hasn’t been entirely undeserved.

Caviezel is a soft-spoken actor who rarely seems to raise his voice in any film or TV show he’s ever done. He plays Ladouceur as an even-keel sort who rather than chew out his players a la Herb Brooks in Miracle and Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday instead gives them disappointed looks which seem to affect them more deeply than physical blows. Chiklis is delightful as Eidson, more of a rah-rah sort and a great yang to Caviezel’s yin.

One of the things I object to most in this movie is the addition of the Chris Ryan character who is a complete fabrication. He is there essentially to add a subplot with a sideline dad who is borderline abusive, pushing his son to break a state record not for his son’s benefit but so he can play out his own vicarious fantasies through his son. The real Ladouceur would have never tolerated that sort of behavior and the characters are overbearing cliches that add a jarring note to the film, which could have done better without them, even though Brown and Ludwig do fine jobs in their respective roles.

The football sequences are pretty nicely done, although there are a couple of individual moves that look patently phony. There is also a really good sequence set at the Veterans Hospital where the athletes are introduced to wounded warriors back from the Middle East who are trying to overcome lost limbs and other devastating injuries. That sequence is maybe the most inspiring in the film.

I do applaud the filmmakers for taking a decidedly not underdog team and making them sympathetic. It’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a team that had known that much success, but sometimes it’s how adversity is dealt with rather than success that is the true measure of a person – or a team. I liked the concept, but perhaps I’ve just seen too many true sports stories in the last several years. In any case, it’s a likable enough film but certainly one that doesn’t need to be on the top of your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Restrained work from Caviezel and Chiklis.
REASONS TO STAY: Ryan invented from whole cloth and exists only to add false dramatic tension. A few too many sports film cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a scene of violence plus the violence that is inherent in football, a little bit of mild swearing and – horrors! – smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De La Salle is a private high school and costs as of this year $16,000 per year to attend although it was considerably less when this film took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Marshall
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: As Above, So Below

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1 thought on “When the Game Stands Tall

  1. Nice review, Carlos. My son was lucky enough to go to DLS during this era. The movie captures Lad and brotherhood extremely well, but misses on the student body attention to “The Streak” (everyone cared, but no one focused on it). I agree with your comments about the Ryan character, though I accepted that as a need antagonist and representative of many sports parents.

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