Review: When The Game Stands Tall

Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

It’s hard to think of a film genre that’s more American than the sports movie. Few other formulas so routinely perpetuate our most idealistic notions about ourselves, boiling down the American Dream of pulling oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps into easy-to-digest stories about winners and losers. Just work hard enough and you’ll be successful, the movies claim. All underdogs can be champions if they just put in the effort. Those other teams (or nations) may be tough, but they don’t have our will to win. The true victors take a hit and get back up.

If only real life was that simple. After over a decade of controversial wars and a growing distrust of our leaders, the American Dream of success through hard work and willpower feels like a tired cliché rather than a realistic possibility. We’re a country beset by economic strife, international conflict, broken health care and education systems, and near-constant reports of violence. It’s only been half a decade since the onset of the Great Recession, and after two controversial presidencies, the political climate is rife with dissent about how best to “get the country back.” The only thing we all seem to agree on is that the bubble has burst. The United States no longer feels like the welcome, prosperous superpower of decades past. What do we do when, after decades of being viewed as the best, we suddenly find ourselves struggling to keep up?

When The Game Stands Tall, the new sports drama from Sony’s Affirm Films (their branch focused on producing films aimed at evangelical Christians), takes an intriguing yet uneven approach to this question. Based on a true story, the film follows California’s De La Salle High School football team, which achieved unprecedented victories under the leadership of coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel). The film opens with the team at the height of its success, not only enjoying the national attention that comes with a 151-game winning streak, but also acting as a genuinely supportive faux-family unit. But after the graduating seniors leave the team, the rising juniors don’t promote the same team bonds, and the streak quickly comes to an end.

For its first half hour, When The Game Stands Tall feels like a risky, potentially subversive wake-up call. Unlike most sports films, which follow the rise of an underdog team to the top of the scoreboards, this one follows a leading team down to the near-bottom. Instead of asking what it takes to win big, it asks how best to move on from defeat. For a healthy chunk of the film, nothing good happens to the characters – Ladouceur has a heart attack, a star player is murdered, and the team suddenly finds itself blamed for ending an incredible winning streak, rather than celebrated for helping achieve it.

The presentation is schmaltzy, sure (does every emotional beat have to be supplemented by melodramatic music?), but this is a movie that doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that life can really suck sometimes – even for high school football stars. For a while, When The Game Stands Tall is a welcome antidote to our feel-good maxims, acknowledging the harsh reality: it doesn’t matter how hard you work, because success can still be fleeting. Over the past few years, how many unemployed and disillusioned Americans have echoed one character’s confusion about how God could allow bad things to happen to good people? In one scene, students debate a Bible verse that implies karmic good fortune will be awarded to the righteous, and it’s hard not to agree with the player who argues that we live in a dog-eat-dog world where nobody gets what they deserve.

Unfortunately, once the team ends its winning streak, the film spends only a few minutes showing its characters coping with failure before rushing full-speed into the same pat, false answers that are the foundation of, well, just about every sports movie ever. To be fair, there are some small attempts at character development. A quarterback struggles with how his self-worth is defined by his athletic potential. Ladouceur feels guilty about prioritizing coaching over his family. One player can barely find the will to get out of bed after the death of several loved ones. Any of these conflicts could be fascinating if explored in-depth, as they each get at the crux of how we define ourselves and our success. It isn’t long, though, before people offer hollow answers to these tough questions, throwing around concepts like “brotherhood” and the need to play with “more heart,” as if these abstract ideas can lead to concrete results. It’s telling that the filmmakers cast The Passion of the Christ’s Caviezel as the lead—it’s hard to believe De La Salle’s challenges will last for long if the team is being led by Jesus himself.

Director Thomas Carter knows where to place the camera during the football games, choreographing the action in a way that’s easy to follow and genuinely suspenseful. He also knows how to direct his actors, securing fantastic performances from supporting players like Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern in sadly underwritten roles. It’s Caviezel who’s surprisingly uneven, occasionally underplaying Ladouceur’s relaxed and laid-back personality to the point that it becomes monotonous. On the whole, though, this is a well-crafted film; it’s a shame it wasn’t made from a better script.

As for the religious themes, there are heavy-handed appeals to evangelical viewers –one player proudly claims he’s waiting until marriage to have sex, Ladouceur teaches a Bible class, and characters talk about God in absolutes—but the script thankfully avoids preaching or painting its characters’ success as dependent on their faith. The PG rating stretches suspension of disbelief by removing any profanity or sexual references; this may be a true story, but not that many high-schoolers are this chaste. The religiosity of De La Salle’s players even adds a sharper edge to its exploration of failure — after all, how could God allow so many bad things to happen after such a long period of prosperity?

It’s too bad the movie refuses to engage meaningfully with these issues in the second half. If it had, When The Game Stands Tall might have kicked off the rise of a newer, better type of sports movie: one tied deeply to larger national concerns that questions the nature of the game itself. Ultimately, though, it’s as sappy and superficial as its title—it feels good on the surface, but it doesn’t mean much at all.

Grade: C