Directed by: Thomas Carter
Premise: The true story of Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), a high school football coach who led his team on a 151-game winning streak. When the streak ends, Ladouceur and his players must reevaluate what is important and rebuild their team.
What Works: When the Game Stands Tall has an inherently interesting premise. The De La Salle High School football team had the longest winning streak in the history of the sport but rather than focus on the glory of the wins this film begins with a loss. As a matter of drama, failure is more interesting than success and When the Game Stands Tall is at its best when the characters cope with the humiliation of defeat. The most impressive performances of the film come from the actors playing the high school students. Alexander Ludwig is cast as a running back who is poised to break the state touchdown record and he must cope with pressure from his overzealous father (Clancy Brown). Another subplot involves two longtime friends, played by Stephan James and Ser’Darius Blain; one of them is college bound on a football scholarship while the other is losing his mother to a terminal illness and the young men cope with imminent changes in their lives. The few moments that James and Blain share are very effective and add a lot of humanity to the picture. The cast also includes Jesse Usher as an arrogant player and Usher captures the swagger of a high school athlete and he shows a great deal of charisma as an actor.
What Doesn’t: When the Game Stands Tall is another entry in the surge of faith-based movies to be released in 2014. The quality of these religiously themed films has varied as has the coherence of their messages. The filmmakers of When the Game Stands Tall have attempted to do something earnest and well-meaning but virtually every key moment of this movie is miscalculated. Those mistakes are a drag on the story, which in turn handicaps the efficacy of the film’s message. This picture starts off well enough, establishing several characters and assigning them subplots in which they deal with loss and must overcome obstacles and personality flaws. The trouble is the way in which the filmmakers go about trying to develop those subplots and characters. There are many story kernels in When the Games Stands Tall but none of them are tended to very well. The arrangement of plot beats is frequently awkward, with one event not necessarily leading to the next. When the film goes for big emotional moments it frequently does them clumsily or in such a way that the intentions go awry. A key example of this is a prolonged sequence in which the team members visit a veteran’s hospital and witness soldiers who have lost limbs and sustained other life changing injuries. The intent here is for the players to learn humility but it does not play out that way. For starters, the filmmakers confuse putting these young men in the proximity of struggle with character building; the athletes don’t do anything meaningful in which they come together as a team or demonstrate the values they are supposed to absorb. Worse, the hospital sequence comes across terribly crass, almost exploitative, in the way it parades injured soldiers and leaches on their sacrifices. The movie continues to have similar problems, with the filmmaking techniques misaligning with the film’s message. The coach reminds his players that football is only a game but the filmmakers give into the hyperbole of football culture, in which every contest is a cosmic struggle. This tension comes to a head in the climax. The filmmakers attempt to stage an “O Captain! My Captain!” moment but instead of conveying solidarity with their teammates and paying tribute to their coach, the bit comes across as a juvenile swipe by an ungrateful son toward an overbearing father.
Bottom Line: When the Game Stands Tall has an interesting subject and showcases some impressive acting talent but the filmmakers consistently fumble their story. The movie does not inspire in the way its filmmakers intend and it’s a conflicted mess of sports clichés and poorly staged spiritual ideas.
Episode: #506 (August 31, 2014)