When the Game Stands Tall (United States, 2014)August 22, 2014
When the Game Stands Tall is one of those cliché-riddled feel good movies that, by trying too hard to be inspirational, ends up as cloying and overly sentimental. At first glance, the narrative trajectory might seem to be on a different vector from the one favored by most sports movies. It's about the impact of a loss on a team, its players, and the community. Ultimately, however, all the big moments in When the Game Stands Tall relate to individual game wins, including the one at the climax. The critical defeat, which occurs early in the proceedings, serves as little more than a plot point and its ramifications are handled in a perfunctory manner laced with a lot of "losing builds character"-type homilies.
In the late summer of 2004, the De La Salle Spartans, the varsity football team of a Concord, California high school, held the longest winning streak in organized football: 151 games over 12 undefeated seasons. On September 4, De La Salle had the streak snapped after falling to the underdog Bellvue Wolverines. The loss stunned the sports world at the time and, with the tenth anniversary of the momentous date approaching, a film version of the event and its aftermath reaches screens. When the Game Stands Tall provides sufficient background for the 2004-05 season opener to bring the uninitiated up to speed. During the summer following the Spartans' march to their 12th state title, a star player is shot to death, Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caveziel) suffers a heart attack, and most of the team's top talent departs for college glory. After the loss, Ladouceur must seek to refocus his players so their legacy becomes greater than that of "the boys who broke the streak."
Credit is due to director Thomas Carter for the pacing and execution of the football scenes. Carter understands how to used camera angles, editing, and judicious "fast forwarding" to draw the viewer into the action. Two matches in particular - a pivotal game against powerhouse Long Beach Poly and a state championship contest - are as energetic and exciting as any football recreation committed to film. However, the film's laudable assets stop where the sidelines begin. Dramatically, When the Game Stands Tall is a mishmash of syrupy dialogue, stock situations, and trite characters. It's manipulative soap opera melodrama crossed with a Sunday morning sermon.
The cast doesn't feature a roster of A-listers. Instead, character actors and up-and-coming thespians fill the roles. Jim Caviezel, who remains best known for his portrayal of Jesus for Mel Gibson, gets top billing. Caviezel comes from the Kevin Costner school of acting, which means he rarely emotes. He walks around with a blank expression and delivers his lines in a monotone. Perhaps that's an accurate representation of Coach Ladouceur's personality. Nevertheless, there's too little energy in the performance, which could have used a little more R. Lee Ermy and a little less Mr. Rogers. Laura Dern, Michael Chiklis, and Clancy Brown represent the film's other veteran talent. Chiklis, with his strong screen presence, steals almost every scene he shares with Caviezel. Laura Dern has the thankless role of the supporting wife and Clancy Brown is the bullying father who wants his son to succeed so he can bask in the reflected glory.
When it comes to movies about high school sports, Hoosiers and Friday Night Lights remain touchstones that When the Game Stands Tall doesn't come close to reaching. Its inspirational moments come across as obvious, watered-down copies of scenes from Rudy and a dozen similar films. There's probably a good story to be found within the text but the narrative boxes it in. Complexity isn't desirable. When the Game Stands Tall is too intent upon tweaking our emotions that it loses sight of some potentially powerful issues about hero worship and how the pressure to succeed can be damaging. (To the extent that it addresses these subjects, they're clumsily handled.) Some viewers may react well to this material. Others will find themselves containing their gag reflexes.
When the Game Stands Tall (United States, 2014)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Scott Marshall Smith, based on the book by Neil Hayes
Cinematography: Michael Lohmann
Music: John Paesano