As with any long-running streak, whether good or bad, the run must always come to an end. It’s inevitable; nothing lasts forever. What matters most, both during and after a lengthy streak, is in how you deal with the effects of that streak and what values can be learned from having participated, either as a contributor or a viewer. This is the core idea behind the new film, When the Game Stands Tall, a solid, if not flawed, peek into the mindset of a variety of kids (and to some degree, their parents) who are sucked into the hype of their own indestructibility, only to learn that a fall from grace can be crushing if you’re not prepared for it. But the lessons learned from having experienced it can be so much greater than whatever fleeting popularity it garners.
Based on the true story of De La Salle High School’s marvelous 151-game winning streak (which happened between 1991 and 2003), When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t try to be anything than what it is — an inspirational parable about brotherhood, camaraderie, teamwork and what it takes to win in the face of adversity. I was actually surprised by how religious the film was. Not only did it quote from the Bible on several occasions, but the football team’s coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caveizel), taught a Bible class at the school and coached his team, not only in the game of football, but to believe in honesty and integrity through the basis of scripture that states the more good you do, the more good will come back to you.
I thought this was actually a compelling angle to a film that could have looked past this aspect of Ladouceur’s character to make the film more “mainstream.” But if they did that, it would have hurt the credibility of the film and its overall themes, which, from what I can tell, represents an accurate portrayal of a team that would have lost its way had it not have been for a man who fought hard to remove the statistics and the records from the game so as to teach these kids how to be righteous and upstanding MEN (as opposed to superstars or celebrities).
When we first meet Ladouceur and his team on the verge of winning their 151st game and twelfth consecutive championship, we’re introduced to some of Ladouceur’s teaching methods, including writing several different goals, both personal and professional, on a card and having one of their teammates work to help them keep those goals (as we learn a little more about during the final credits). We also see how he works on the field — he hates unnecessary celebrations on the field (at one point threatening to bench his star player, Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) if he somersaults into the end zone); he has his players hold hands as they walk out onto the field to prove their brotherhood — as well as intimidate the opposing team — and tolerates the media circus surrounding the record streak only because it is what it is and he can’t do anything about it. As long as his players play every play with as much perfection as they can muster, that’s all that matters. And that’s all that should matter.
But the media — and public — fascination with this team’s unbreakable perfection produces a fracture within the team when they start believing the hype. It doesn’t help that a changing of the guard is in progress, as the juniors, including Ryan and Ladeuceur’s son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), must become the leaders (and in Ryan’s case, captain) as seniors and continue to lead the team to victory. One senior, Tayshon Lanear (Jessie Usher), believes the invincible hype so much that he doesn’t even feel the need to attend practice because he’s already that good, putting him at odds with the rest of the team. It’s cracks like these that can tear the fabric with the just the smallest of touches.
And as this fracture continues to grow throughout pre-season, Ladouceur has a heart attack that keeps him from coaching until the first game. Without his guidance, the kids quickly lose sight of who they are as men and as a team, leading to their first loss in 12 years. Watching the scene that transpires afterward, as the entire team is either in tears, or fighting those tears with anger, aggression and frustration, is devastating to watch. It’s not necessarily that they felt they let themselves down in that moment, but that they let everyone around them down; they failed to live up to everyone else’s expectations, and that is where most of the pain comes from. How they overcome this will prove what makes them men and give Ladouceur hope that he still has something to teach them.
I will say that the film can get a little saccharine at times, pounding you over the head with the emotional weight of the message. For instance, in order to try and combat this lack of teamwork for individual goals, Ladouceur takes the entire team to a VA hospital to show them what brotherhood actually represents. Meeting real-life war veterans who have lost so much more than simply a game, and who would not hesitate to return to the battlefield to help protect the men that they call brothers, is a strong idea, however, in the course of a film that is built on this foundation of strength through bonding, it can seem a little over indulgent.
The film also treads a little too close to sports drama cliche tropes at times, like when we’re introduced to the arrogant father, Mickey Ryan (Clancy Brown), who lives vicariously through his son. The scenes with Chris and Mickey are fine for what they are and how they fit into the overall message, and it leads to a climax that beautifully sums up what Ladouceur stands for, but throughout the film, Mickey slowly goes from being a dedicated soccer dad into a cartoon of that idea. It’s been done before, and even if true, comes off more annoying than inspirational. But all of this is carefully balanced out with the terrifically paced football sequences that are as hard-hitting and glorious as any other top-tier football movie.
Where the film truly falls short is in the overall way the story is told. Most films that are based on, or inspired by, a true story, liberties are taken in order to create compelling drama that follows a clear arc in both plot and character. Here, I believe that director Thomas Carter attempted to stay too close to the what actually happened, leading to a lot of extremely powerful story arcs that aren’t represented as well as they could have, or are developed in a way that doesn’t strengthen the outcome of the main plot, or of the characters involved.
The biggest one includes a graduating senior who is shot outside of a party over a game of basketball. The gravity that this death could have had on the team’s psyche is a powerful concept, the execution of which falls extremely flat in relation to the rest of the film. It does help another player learn what it means to never give up, but even that story arc is hardly noticeable and is never given a chance to breathe. During the credits, we learn that a banner commemorating that player’s death was mysteriously put up for the championship game the next year, however, this idea isn’t explored at all in the film. I feel Carter could have done more to make this death resonate throughout the players and to help bring the team back together.
Don’t get me wrong; those scenes are quite emotional, especially Ladouceur’s eulogy, which speaks to not only his character as a person, but to his faith and his dedication to God and how His presence can do so much for a kid trying to find his way through life. Those messages have been lost on a lot of people these days, particularly for those who are involved in the entertainment industry, where numbers and stats are more important than the actual quality of that product. It just goes to show that when you rely too heavily on the statistics, somewhere along the way, you lose who you are as a person, and that will always lead to certain failure.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include As Above/So Below and The November Man. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.