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God on the Gridiron
By STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
Facing the Giants combines two genres that tend to be
formulaic and clichéd: the inspirational sports movie and the inspirational
Shot with an all-volunteer cast on
a $100,000 budget raised by the members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany,
Ga., it’s a story of faith and football centering on a high school football
coach at a Christian school whose six-year losing streak is mirrored by failure
in just about every area of his life.
Grant Taylor (director Alex
Kendrick, who co-wrote with his brother Stephen) drives an old bomber that
always needs a push or a jump to get going. He and his wife Brooke (Shannen Fields) have been trying unsuccessfully to have a
child for four years, and visits to fertility specialists confirm that the
problem is Grant. Their house needs repairs they can’t afford — and, for some
reason, it’s got a stink.
Then there’s coaching. Grant
coaches the Shiloh Eagles, the losing team of a spiritually anemic Christian
high school. The season starts badly when Grant’s star player transfers to
another school. Next come three straight losses, including one to the worst
team in the state. Before long, parents are talking behind Grant’s back about
giving Grant’s job to one of his assistant coaches. Eventually, even his
colleagues aren’t willing to support him.
Because Facing the Giants is an inspirational sports film, we know Grant
will somehow get his groove back, turn the team around and get his life on
track. Because it is an inspirational Christian film, there will be prayer,
Bible reading, revival and learning to trust God and put him first.
It’s Remember the Titans by way of “Davey and
Goliath” — or rather, David and Goliath, since the film ultimately pits its
underdog heroes, including an undersized kicker named David (Bailey Cave),
against the aptly named Giants, perennial state champs.
Knowing no more about the film
than that, you might have a pretty good idea what to expect from Facing the Giants. And, in fact, the
film delivers more or less what you expect — though it does so perhaps a bit
better than you expect it to.
In particular, the film pulls off
the potentially problematic combination of religious and athletic inspiration
more often than not, at least on the field. Grant’s coaching blend of
motivational speaking and revival preaching in the second half works on both
counts, and the film finds some clever ways to connect faith and success
without reducing belief to a lucky feather or God to a team mascot.
Among the film’s best moments is a
scene in which Grant blindfolds a promising young player and pushes him farther
than he ever thought he could go. This scene would be a memorable addition in
any of today’s Hollywood sports movies. Later,
there’s a clever twist after a defeat in an important game in which integrity
rather than pure athleticism or even points is the deciding factor in which team
Unfortunately, the filmmakers
haven’t figured out how to realize the critical spiritual turning points off
the field — Grant’s spiritual awakening,
the revival that comes to Shiloh, the transformation of a sullen player we
barely know. These moments of conversion are plot points that just happen with
no sense of character development or insight. The filmmakers understand Grant’s
helplessness and depression in the first half of the film, and his sense of
inner peace and conviction in the second half. But they don’t show how he gets
from the one to the other.
scene in which Grant stands in a lightly wooded field reading his Bible and
praying for inspiration just doesn’t work as a dramatic turning point. For one thing, it’s the first time
we see Grant praying, so there’s no sense how this experience is in any way new
or different for him, or what might have been lacking before.
As a point of contrast, consider
how Robert Duvall’s The Apostle used
prayer and spiritual experience to reveal and explore the protagonist’s psyche
and character. His prayers weren’t just plot points,
they were an integral part of who he was and what he was going through. Facing the Giants has no idea how to do
this. As competently as it sketches Grant’s descent into depression and
failure, the moment he cracks a Bible and starts praying the movie feels like
an evangelization tool rather than a dramatic story.
This overtly evangelistic content
generated some controversy when the studio reported that the Motion Picture
Association of America had given the film a PG rating in part for its
“proselytizing.” The MPAA has since denied this — but not before receiving
thousands of letters of protest.
The controversy went all the way
to Capitol Hill. In a letter to MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman,
Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., complained about “the disquieting possibility
that MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children
than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence.”
For what it’s worth, the
controversy seemed half-baked. The PG rating hardly implies stiffer treatment
of Christian themes than “gratuitous sex and mindless violence” — hardly
staples of G-rated entertainment! The PG rating isn’t a moral censure, merely a
note to parents that the content may call for parental guidance. Which it does.
Though its faults are inescapable
— and did we really need another football movie? — Facing the Giants is far from a disaster or an embarrassment. It’s
fitfully entertaining on its own terms, and scene for scene probably offers
more than, say, Gridiron Gang.
Production was overseen by a
number of Hollywood professionals, including
cinematographer Bob Scott (Any Given
Sunday), so the technical values are solid. Acting credits, though not professional,
are often quite decent. Kendrick and Fields in particular make Grant and Brooke
a likeable, sympathetic couple.
Among fans of its two genres,
especially in the Bible Belt, Facing the Giants will doubtless find an audience. To reach a
broader swath of the general public, though, the filmmakers will have to scrap
their playbook and learn a whole new set of rules.
Content advisory: Sports roughness; discussion of
infertility (including a reference to in vitro fertilization); much evangelical
Protestant/Fundamentalist religiosity. Might be okay for
Steven D. Greydanus is
editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
Copyright (c) 2017 EWTN News, Inc. All rights reserved.