‘Game Stands Tall’: Formulaic, but entertaining

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Football winning streaks are a noteworthy phenomenon. The New England Patriots have the NFL record with 21 consecutive regular season victories. The Oklahoma Sooners have the collegiate record with 47 straight regular season wins.  The De La Salle High School Spartans eclipsed both streaks by a wide margin. Over the course of twelve seasons, from 1992 through 2004, the Bay Area team won 151 consecutive games.

The Spartans were coached by Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), who is the film’s central figure. The film depicts Coach Ladouceur as a soft-spoken, benevolent, and high-minded individual.

“When the Game Stands Tall” is inspired by the 2003 book of the same name by Neil Hayes. He covered the Spartans as a sports journalist with the “Contra Costa Times.” Hayes followed the team for practices, meetings, and games during their undefeated 2002 season. His book is limited in scope to the period before the streak ended.

“When the Game” opens with the Spartans annihilating an overmatched  opponent to win its 11th straight California state championship. It places the viewer in the position of rooting for Goliath to smite David, the puny little shepherd boy, who was too small to even don armor.

However, the cinematic version of “When the Game Stands Tall” uses the winning streak principally as a back story. The vast bulk of the film takes place after the streak is abruptly ended. It focuses on the team’s losing skein and their efforts to get back on track.

Of course, since this is a sports film, the team must overcome adversity. Coach Ladouceur suffers a crippling heart attack after furtively smoking a cigarette. Are we really supposed to believe that Coach Ladouceur indulged in a single isolated cigarette? How will the team fare while their putatively saint-like coach is recuperating?

“When the Game Stands Tall” also depicts the off-field struggles of several players. The team’s star running back (Alexander Ludwig) is routinely bullied by his overbearing blowhard of a father (Clancy Brown, essentially reprising his role from “Friday Night Lights”). In a dubious act of achieving an unfair competitive disadvantage, De La Salle  busses two Afro-American players (Stephan James, Jessie Usher) cross-town to their campus. Will their athletic heroics enable them to earn collegiate scholarships and escape the ghetto? Then, there is the coach’s son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), a receiver on the team. Their father-son relationship is at odds with their coach-player dynamic.

The film persistently asserts that Ladouceur was far more interested in molding the characters of his players than winning football games.  Forgive my cynicism, but I do not believe that a coach can sustain a 151-game winning streak without focusing obsessively on the actual outcome of games.

Viewers should also be forewarned that this sanitized PG vehicle is a not-so-subtle Christian movie. It is co-produced by Affirm Films, a division of Sony Pictures. They are involved with making faith-based flicks. Previously, they made “Facing the Giants,” another flick about a high-school football team, which also embodied strong religious overtones. At one juncture, a player matter-of-factly declares that he and his girlfriend have take a purity pledge.

The iconography of this film is at times repugnant.  De La Salle High School is an elite, private Roman Catholic High School. The camera frequently flashes on Jesucentric imagery, which festoons the school’s hallways. The film seems to subliminally suggest that God is on the side of the Spartans because their coaches and players are more devout. Assuming arguendo there is a Supreme Being, who governs the universe, somehow I suspect that he has more important things to worry about than which high school football team wins a given game.

The film makes a point of establishing that Coach Ladouceur also teaches a class in religion. He is fond of quoting Matthew 23:12 for inspiration. For those whose memory of the New Testament is a tad rusty, the section exhorts, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” This Biblical text is used as a rationale for a pivotal on-field stratagem.

If you didn’t know otherwise, watching Jim Caviezel in this film, you would swear that he is portraying a zombie. Soft-spoken? No-this guy is more like a walking dead. Once again, Caviezel’s performance is preternaturally devoid of emotion.  Caviezel considers it sinful to kiss or touch a woman other than his wife. That is certainly his prerogative. However, it seems incongruous that he never kisses or hugs his screen wife, portrayed by Laura Dern. It makes their relationship seem emotionally distant and detached.

“When the Game Stands Tall” is cloyingly sentimental and manipulative. The film’s moral formulations are deeply disturbing. The blatant product placement for Dick’s Sporting Goods brings the film’s earnestness into question.

However, the film does present some exciting game footage. If you can get past its numerous flaws, “When the Game Stands Tall” is a reasonably entertaining, albeit formulaic, sports flick.

** 1/2  PG (for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking) 115 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.



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