fully understand what’s in store in the real-life football parable
“When the Game Stands Tall,” it’s probably good to know that star Jim
Caviezel’s most noteworthy film role was as Jesus in “The Passion of the
out his ability to preach and sway his disciples comes in pretty handy
as Bob Ladouceur, the high-school coach behind the miraculous
decade-plus, record-breaking streak of 151 wins achieved by the De La
Salle Spartans of suburban Concord, Calif.
Stoic, soft-spoken and solemn—think the opposite of blustery Al Pacino in “Any Given Sunday”—Coach Lad, as he is called, doesn’t so much give pep talks as
deliver soul-enriching sermons. He underplays the importance of
collecting trophies and beating opponents and instead promotes a sense
of brotherhood, having your teammate’s back and pushing yourself to the
limit and beyond to achieve your goals.
His approach to the game, one that he has given most of his life to, is perhaps best summed up in a quotation from Matthew 23:13
that is recited onscreen: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled. And
whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” In other words, it is not
about you, it is about others.
these sentiments are worthwhile, of course. And considering that De La
Salle is a Catholic school and Coach Lad also was a religious studies
teacher, they aren’t gratuitous. Still, most often in its early
stages, the melodrama onscreen edges precipitously close to dissolving
into a puddle of platitudinous pabulum served in the manner of a rote Sunday school lesson.
of the problem with this particular sports story is the difficulty of
presenting De La Salle as an underdog. Which is why producer David
Zelon (“Soul Surfer,” another Christian-influenced sports film) and
director Thomas Carter (“Coach Carter”) decided to zone in on the year
2004, when the Spartans lost their focus after Coach Lad suffered a
life-threatening heart attack (turns out he was a secret smoker—a
reason for a PG rating) and one of the team’s brightest stars is killed
in a random shooting (the other reason for a PG rating).
their leader sidelined and a tragic act of violence resulting in a
painful absence in the lineup, the streak soon is as broken as the
players’ sense of dedication. After losing the first two games of the
season, Coach Lad is given the OK to resume his duties. And we as
moviegoers apparently have paid enough penance and watched enough
hardships to finally earn the right to see some actual football being
course, coming back from a two-game slump doesn’t exactly qualify as a
resurrection even though the filmmakers pull out every trick in the book
to make it seem that way. The actual turning point that prevents “When
the Game Stands Tall” from becoming totally insufferable arrives
earlier when the kids go on a field trip to visit wounded veterans in a
recovery facility. The nervous and ultimately heartfelt interaction
between the fresh-faced actors and these wounded warriors who brave
through their disabilities is the film’s first of too-few emotional
it is preferable than hearing Coach Lad’s dutiful wife (Laura Dern, who
tries her best but is ill-served by the script) observe for the
umpteenth time that his job causes him to neglect his real family. How
neglectful is he? He doesn’t even know how to grill a burger. Some dad
he is. Watching him toss the charred hockey pucks into the bushes?
Priceless, but not all that funny.
There are roughly 10 too many scenes of workouts involving giant tires pulled
down the field by rope wrapped around a player’s body to symbolize
their renewed drive. But the game action is fairly well shot and edited
(although those bone-cruncher sound effects that resound every time someone
gets hit are a bit much). And the young actors, topped by Alexander
Ludwig (tribute Cato in “The Hunger Games”) as an ace running back,
occasionally flash a welcome spark of spontaneity and share a natural
Michael Chiklis doesn’t get to inject nearly enough humor as Coach
Lad’s more demonstrative assistant. And Clancy Brown as Ludwig’s father
is beyond redemption as the standard overbearing abusive parent who
lives vicariously through his son’s victories.
final acid test of whether “When the Game Stands Tall” stands up to
some of the greatest sports films? I have tissues at the ready when I
just think about "Brian’s Song" and "Rudy," I’ve been known to shed a tear
or two over "Field of Dreams" and I always bawl my eyes out during "The
Blind Side" when it shows up on cable.
But this sucker for scoreboard sentiment was left dry-eyed this time.
To be fair, there was a glitch at my screening of “When the Game Stands
Tall” and the sound went out with seconds to go in the final game. But
it’s doubtful that it would have made any difference, judging by what I
could at least see. Just as any coach would tell you, it is not whether
you win or lose, it is how you play the game. But even though "When the
Game Stands Tall" comes alive occasionally, it is basically a dropped