Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (0-5): 3.5
Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
In the Fall 2006 issue of Visual Parables I ended my review of the predictable faith-based football film Facing the Giants with, “A more interesting film might have been made about the team losing to the Giants: what then is our theology of success and failure?” Eight years later I am happy to report that such a film has been made, When the Game Stands Tall, starting out when the over-confident players of the real-life Spartan’s football team of De La Salle High School in Concord, California loses a game at the end of their 2003 season. This ends the longest winning streak of any team in any sport.
Director Thomas Carter and writer Scott Marshall Smith have crafted a memorable film from the book by Neil Hayes. Few sports films deal very much with losing, and none as well as this story of a California high school football team that, after a winning streak of 151 games, loses its 152nd—and the first two of the next season. Although a lot of fictional material has been added for dramatic purposes, most of the incidents are true, including the drive-by murder of one of the team’s best players.
The devout coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) uses Scripture passages to drive home his message that winning is not the most important part of the game, but the film is not a super pious affair. Although some have criticized the actor for his laid back performance, I found Jim Caviezel’s performance more than adequate. His character is a quiet, admirable man of faith dedicated to his team, possibly to a fault, in that his long hours on the field and in the classroom leave him little time for his son Danny (Matthew Daddario) and wife Bev, well played by Laura Dern. Fortunately, she is as devoted to him as he is to the team. After the loss that shakes the whole community, the coach faces a number of obstacles in bringing the dispirited team back to life, including a heart attack that decommissions him for a summer.
The most devastating incident, however, is the random, drive-by shooting of star linebacker Terrance Kelly (Stephan James). His superior playing had guaranteed him a promising future in college and beyond. He also is shown as a caring person, reaching out to a discouraged fellow black team member and encouraging him to continue despite his family problems.
Probably the best sequence in the film, one showing Coach Ladouceur’s creative approach in motivating his players, discouraged because they were stigmatized as the team that lost the school’s winning streak, is the their visit to a veteran’s hospital. Seeing soldiers without an arm or leg going through their long, grueling rehabilitation exercises gives the players a new perspective. Admiring the determination and pluck of the wounded men make them realize how trivial their own problem is. One player says sometimes his legs hurt so much that he wishes he couldn’t feel them. “No, you don’t,” a paralyzed veteran responds. The students, after interacting in positive ways with the amputees, return humbled and rejuvenated. Sports writers might call football players “warriors,” but they know they have met the real thing.
I also should add a note about the assistant coach Terry Eidson, played by Michael Chiklis. No one could have a more supportive friend than this unassuming man who must always stand in the shadow of his more gifted boss. This should remind us that even the best leader needs loyal supporters to succeed, just as a team needs more than just its star players. This message runs throughout the film, even during the end credits. We are treated to clips of the real Coach Ladouceur speaking gently to his team, reiterating the lessons that winning streaks and victories are not, for him, the point of the game.
Although it adds drama to the last part of the film, I believe it is too bad that the filmmakers felt they had to make up the fictional team captain Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) and his verbally abusive father (Clancy Brown), the latter obsessed with his son’s winning a touchdown record. The real story of the team and their amazing Bible quoting coach should have been enough. The ending seems a bit over the top, leaving me with the same dissatisfaction as that of the teacher film Mr. Holland’s Opus. However, it must be admitted that the unsatisfactory, manufactured ending, does show good Scriptural teaching of self sacrifice embodied in what Chris Ryan leads his teammates to do in the climactic game of the season. This is a film I can highly recommend for youth groups, especially those with members of athletic teams, to watch and discuss.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of Visual Parables.