Remember the Titans (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With a movie like Remember the Titans, your overall opinion will be largely dependent upon how you look at the finished product. If viewed as a crowd-pleasing, feel-good sports movie, the film is an unqualified success, following the accepted formula to the expected conclusion while delivering some nice moments along the way. However, if seen as a socially conscious retrospective on race relations in the South during the early 1970s, Remember the Titans can best be described as timid and unexceptional. In soft-peddling the theme of intolerance, the picture refuses to take even the smallest chance.

From the beginning, we are meant to know that the events portrayed in Remember the Titans have their roots in historical fact, as if the "based on a true story" caption lends added credibility to the story. In reality, there's probably more truth in an entirely fictional account like The War Zone than there is in a movie like this, where events have been massaged to make for a compelling two hours in a theater. Aside from documentaries and docu-dramas (such as Gettysburg), it is not the duty of a motion picture to offer an unbiased and unaltered version of history. For that, there are text books. This wouldn't even be an issue, however, if the filmmakers hadn't insisted upon linking their characters and events to their real-life counterparts of 30 years ago. Remember the Titans might have worked better if not encumbered by the words "based on a true story" and all that they imply.

This is the second consecutive film Denzel Washington has participated in to use a fact-based narrative as a jumping-off point for making a social statement. Unlike The Hurricane (which became the target of numerous slings and arrows from those who were offended by its frequent - and justifiable - re-writing of history), Remember the Titans is not hard-hitting in its depiction of bigotry. The kinds of things endured by the characters in this film would have been minor irritants to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who was railroaded and falsely convicted of a murder because of his race. In Remember the Titans, the worst we are exposed to is some taunting and mild name calling, a brick hurled through a window, and a brawl or two. In a way, this underplaying of racism misrepresents it as something less pervasive and poisonous than it was (and, to an extent, still is).

Of course, the argument can be made that a serious examination of intolerance in 1971 Virginia would clash with the get-up-and-cheer tone promoted by the main storyline - that of an underdog football team banding together to defy the odds. It's a valid point - a more hard-hitting approach towards bigotry would have curdled the formula and made the film feel disjointed and out-of-focus. Given the constraints he is working under, director Boaz Yakin does what he can to imply that the interaction between black and white team members represents a microcosm of society as a whole. It's a problematic solution at best, but it at least gives Remember the Titans a socially relevant underpinning - even if it is contrived and, at times, preachy.

That complaint aside, I must admit to having enjoyed the film, albeit largely on a visceral level. Like all sports movies, Remember the Titans is relentlessly manipulative and hopelessly predictable, but Yakin displays skill in the way he choreographs the expected ups and downs. And, even though nearly every individual is pretty much a cut-and-dried type, those whom we get to know on a first-name basis are likable. Of course, the presence of an accomplished actor like Washington doesn't hurt, nor does the fact that some attention is paid to giving his character depth and complexity.

With the exception of a pair of bookend scenes transpiring in 1981, the film takes place a decade earlier in the town of Alexandria, Virginia, where the T.C. Williams High School has just been integrated. This means that not only will whites and blacks be mingling in the halls, but on the football field as well. And, in a place like Alexandria, where every resident lives and dies with each game, the composition of the T.C. Williams Titans is a serious matter, as is the identity of the coach. So, when the eminently qualified local choice, Bill Yoast (Will Patton), is passed over in favor of an out-of-towner named Herman Boone (Washington), the citizens are in an uproar, especially since they believe Boone has been selected based not on his qualifications but because of his race. The commonly held opinion is that school board hopes the presence of a black coach might be able to calm the tensions that are threatening to turn Alexandria into another Watts.

Boone is initially uncomfortable with his reasons for getting the job, but he vows to be color-blind in his treatment of his players. He invites Yoast to be his defensive coordinator - an offer that is reluctantly accepted. Then, over the course of a grueling, late-summer boot camp for would-be football players, he concentrates on destroying the preconceptions of all of his charges, both black and white. In the process, some of the players become fast friends, and Boone and Yoast develop a bond. But the team's new-found internal harmony does not necessarily reflect that of the outside world, which regards the racially integrated team with mistrust and, at times, disdain.

Washington isn't the only one to give a strong performance. He is ably supported by the underrated Will Patton, who uses his baggage as a bad guy to toy with the audience's expectations. Equally convincing are Wood Harris and Ryan Hurst, who play Julius and Bertier, a militant black and white who become close friends. Then there's young Hayden Panettiere, who steals nearly every scene she's in as Yoast's nine year-old daughter, Cheryl, who would rather watch football films and help the coaches than play with dolls.

The movie comes from uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose last non-action outing was the ill conceived Coyote Ugly (he was also behind this summer's Gone In 60 Seconds, as well as past blockbusters like Armageddon and Crimson Tide). Bruckheimer is not one to court controversy. His trademark is to make glitzy, accessible movies for wide audiences. So, by toning down the racial epithets (the word "nigger" is not uttered once) and the violence in Remember the Titans, he garners a flaccid PG for material that could easily have been a PG-13 or an R. The wisdom of this approach is questionable since it gives the impression that the film's integrity may have fallen victim to a desire for commercial success. Remember the Titans is careful to avoid areas that could disturb or offend large groups of viewers. Bruckheimer's director, Boaz Yakin, is attempting to rebound from the critical and box-office disaster, A Price Above Rubies (which, in turn, was his follow-up to his much-lauded debut, Fresh).

As sports films go, Remember the Titans is a notch above the average entry in part because its social message (even if it is soft-peddled) creates a richer fabric than the usual cloth from which this kind of movie is cut. The film's racial slant gives the football games a little more meaning and energy, and the characters come across as more sincere and less self-centered. It's a better picture than its most recent kin, The Replacements, which had the formula, but not much else. Still, when compared to a high school sports classic like Hoosiers, which contained many of the same elements (albeit as applied to basketball, not football), Remember the Titans shows a few flaws. Fortunately, they aren't serious enough to lower the film's broad-based appeal or to diminish its quotient of feel-good moments.

Remember the Titans (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2000-09-29
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1