Sports movies love underdogs scrapping their way to the top. When the Game Stands Tall is about what happens when a ridiculously successful team finally stumbles.
Not many people openly embrace the famous remark, widely if erroneously ascribed to Vince Lombardi, that “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” — but when your team goes over a decade without losing a single game, racking up more than 150 consecutive victories and 12 state championships, winning can become something more pernicious than “the only thing”: It can be taken for granted.
Thomas Carter, who directed the 2005 basketball movie Coach Carter, brings his game to the story of Bob Ladouceur, who coached football at De La Salle, a San Francisco area Catholic high school for boys in the Diocese of Oakland. Under his leadership the Spartans went undefeated for a dozen years, from 1992 to 2004.
The gridiron action is authentic-looking and exciting (or so it seems to this non-fan), though the bone-crushing sound effects become more pronounced the longer the movie goes on. Of course, the paradox at the heart of the sports-movie genre is that the game is its raison d’etre, yet most sports movies want to be about more than just the game.
For Jim Caviezel’s Bob Ladouceur, it’s not about winning or even how you play the game; it’s about character, commitment and brotherhood. Studious and soft-spoken behind spectacles, Caviezel plays Bob not so much as a coach but as a moral authority, one whose mission is not winning games but forming youths to be good men.
Like many movie coaches, Bob is so committed to his work that he neglects his family, at least until a life-threatening crisis forces him to step back from coaching for a while. Then he has a moral epiphany: He has been a lousy husband and father. Perhaps if he’d ever watched any sports movies, he might have seen that coming.
Bob’s son Danny (Matthew Daddario) reacts to his father’s brush with mortality with disconcerting selfishness: “You’re gonna coach me next season, right?” Bob’s wife Bev (Laura Dern) assures him that “Danny’s just angry because he wants a chance to know you.” But when Bob tries to connect with Danny on a personal level, the boy whines, “The whole time I needed a father, I got a coach. Now I need a coach, and all I’ve got is a lame dad.”
When the Game Stands Tall is morally earnest and sincere, with characters who talk about things that matter. The characters themselves, alas, are as thin as cardboard. Some of the actors add some extra depth, including Michael Chiklis as Bob’s assistant coach and Ser’Darius Bain as one of the Spartans’ three notable black players. But the dialogue largely consists of characters standing around explaining things to each other: their beliefs and principles, their motivations and struggles.
At times, these discourses are not unthoughtful, particularly when characters struggle with the mystery of why God lets bad things happen. Even Bob wrestles with a tragedy that befalls one of his players, though he ultimately concludes that to ask why such things happen is to question God’s benevolence. This is an unfortunate remark; such questions are painful and mysterious, and our faith rejects glib or easy answers (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 309), but we are not forbidden to ask the questions.
Other times, the dialogue consists of the broadest inspirational clichés. “It’s no longer about who the bigger, stronger, faster players are; it’s about who plays with more heart,” a character crows. No one actually says “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’” but they come awfully close.
The film insists that there’s more to life than football. Yet the players urgently tell one another, not only at the outset, but even at the climax, “No matter where we go or what we achieve, nothing is going to come close to what we have here.” The idea of life climaxing at high school is depressing enough; more importantly, it undermines the movie’s bid for larger themes.
The mixed messages extend to the way the streak-shattering loss is shot and scored, making it seem like the ultimate catastrophe. Even Dern in the stands looks like she has witnessed a stunning tragedy. Afterwards, to give the players perspective, Bob has them volunteer at a VA rehab center, which has the desired inspirational effect (though the timing does make it seem like a motivational stunt). One player, accidentally bespattering himself with a patient’s urine, exclaims, “Aw, heck no!” I appreciate PG restraint, but the editor’s pen is a little too obvious here.
The film wears its faith-friendly milieu lightly — so lightly, in fact, that De La Salle could easily be a Baptist school. The Spartans pray the Lord’s Prayer before games, and there’s a scene of Bob teaching a religion class in which his players ponder the meaning of Luke 6:38. One student mentions attending a Baptist church, and there’s a funeral set in what seems to be a black Baptist church, but I don’t recall any notable Catholic religiosity.
Caviezel’s low-key performance makes some sense after his health scare, but the role needed more energy in the first act. (Watch the end-credits footage of the real Ladouceur; he doesn’t raise his voice, but there’s a matter-of-fact vitality there.)
The theme of father-son conflict plays out very differently between star player Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) and his stereotyped abusive dad (Clancy Brown), who’s over-eager for his son to break the state scoring record. (Chris’s dad laughs derisively when Bob mentions Chris’ paper on Matthew 23:12. In a film not aimed at believers, the abusive dad would be quoting Scripture with the best of them.)
Toward the end is a crucial moment in which Chris chooses to honor his coach and the team rather than pursue his own glory. A more interesting movie might have at least raised the question of whether Chris was also choosing to stick it to his father.
Caveat Spectator: Lots of punishing sports violence; a fatal shooting; some drug references; brief innuendo and crude language. Tweens and up.