Editor's note: This article is cross-posted at JohnHanlonReviews.com
When the Game Stands Tall is a different kind of sports movie.
While other football dramas would culminate with a high school football team’s winning streak that lasts 151 games, this movie begins with that. As the movie opens, that historic winning streak is alive and well for California’s De La Salle high school team. The team and the town feel invincible and it’s only after the streak ends that they are forced to confront their own personal failings.
Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) is the leader of the team, a man who has led his team to championship victories for over a decade. Although he notes that “the streak was never our goal,” it’s all that the townspeople want to talk about. Keep the streak alive, the locals tell him as if setting one record is never enough. Another one must be set and it is as the team hits new records of 149, 150 and ultimately 151 wins.
The town’s passive joy though is undermined when the coach suffers a massive heart attack and is forced away from the game for health reasons but it’s completely decimated when a player from the team is shot and killed. A harsh reality seems to set in as the town begins to recognize what’s really important in life but they don’t begin to recognize their own failings until the winning streak comes to an abrupt end a few short months later.
These serious plot developments help elevate this drama above other similar features. This is a movie that sees beyond what happens on the field and delves into serious subjects that other sports films would shy away from (like the death of a fellow player) and it is willing to show the team painfully but realistically facing the brutality of ending the streak that everyone in town had taken for granted.
There are disparate elements here that weaken the script though including dialogue that seems culled from sporting cliches. Laura Dern, who plays the coach’s wife, is left with some of the most simplistic dialogue. “Spend as much time with your family as you do the team,” she says as if we haven’t heard that sentiment voiced hundreds of times before. Meanwhile, the couple’s son Danny (Matthew Daddario) is also saddled with some weak dialogue and a selfish personality that pushes him to ask his father—who had just suffered a heart attack—whether or not he can still coach. “The whole time I needed a father, I got a coach,” he whines, “when I need a coach, I got a lame Dad.”
It’s corny moments like that that prevent this film from truly rising to the level of being a great sports film but what the feature lacks in dialogue, it makes up for with a noble heart that consistently steers it back on course. Despite their struggles, the team never loses its faith in God or its compassion. And when they become too selfish and vain, the reverend-like coach brings them to a veteran’s hospital to volunteer.
It’s there that the team wakes up to some of life’s harsher realities and realizes that the aches one feels on the field are nothing compared to the pain one feels during war. They realize that the struggles they face after a loss can’t come close to what veterans feel when their fellow soldiers are injured or killed.
It’s difficult to love a film like When the Game Stands Tall. The movie takes several notable missteps along the way with a few strange tonal shifts. But it’s also hard not to appreciate its heart and its love for the players who are open with their feelings and ultimately realize that there are more important things in life than setting records and scoring goals.
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