"When the Game Stands Tall" isn't your typical football movie. Which, for its own sake, is both good and bad.
It's a positive thing that De La Salle High School football coach Bob Ladouceur's message is broadcast loud and clear: Great teams are more than the sum of their parts. Play for the man next to you. Never give up. Character counts. Leave it all on the field.
Those are borderline cliches, to be sure, but that's how the football team from the Catholic school in Concord does things. It's an admirable ethos, and if record-breaking 151-game win streaks count, it works. It's difficult to see this film and, if one believes half of what it portrays, not feel inspired by how "Coach Lad" and his staff spread their collective message.
Still, from a sports-movie point of view, something feels a bit off. It's not the typical claw-your-way-to-top story arc we expect of the best of them. Not that they have to. But De La Salle -- at least in 2004, the year in which the film is set -- started at the top. They were excellent from the get-go, and that puts the film at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to winning over an audience.
The question then becomes: When you're the best, and things go south, how do the best respond? And is that worthy of an overtly dramatic movie that struggles with credibility? Can being the best and hitting some bumps in the road before regaining the crown inspire moviegoers to root for the so-called comeback?
Films based on real-life events have mountains to climb that others don't, especially when so many of the characters and the people who love them are still around. Even if they accept that a certain amount of "When the Game Stands Tall" is hype, will moviegoers root for a big comeback when the team in question has to "overcome" losing only two games, after "The Streak" of not losing for 12 years? That would be almost laughable, if not for the enormous expectations that come with playing for a program that routinely has perfect seasons.
There were some major obstacles to be sure, and these are set up early in the story. First there's the temporary loss of Ladouceur, who suffers a heart attack shortly after they've won game No. 151, the 2003 section championship. Then in August 2004, one of their own is tragically shot the day before he leaves for college and just weeks before the 2004 season is to begin.
But though compassion-inducing, those problems aren't necessarily alien to dozens of high school football programs, especially in inner cities. So the clawing up is really a matter of clawing back up, and it's less sympathetic when the team hasn't been an underdog in years.
Ladouceur is played stoically by Jim Caviezel ("The Passion of the Christ" and TV's "Person of Interest"). The film follows Ladouceur's quest to build quality young men through disciplined football while battling the demands of time constraints, pushy parents, outside job offers, media pressure, health problems and finally, a team shocked not only by the shooting death of one of its best, but losing two straight games they weren't supposed to lose. Yes, they lost two whole games. Then again, for De La Salle, losing twice isn't the same as it might be elsewhere.
Caviezel -- who at times sounds a lot like Tom Skerritt's character in "Top Gun" -- plays a great Coach Lad ... if Coach Lad is indeed silently and constantly dramatic, always on-point and absolutely inflexible in his approach, even at the cost of massive personal sacrifice. Which makes a great character on film but can't help but make someone wonder how close it comes to reality (and makes it worth sitting through the credits to get a look at the real Ladouceur, who seems capable of the occasional smile). The same goes for Laura Dern, who is mostly wasted as the coach's wife, Bev Ladouceur, whose main job seems to be pointing out the obvious to her husband.
Here's where I confess to not having the objectivity of other reviewers. I have family who played sports at De La Salle. I grew up knowing lots of people who played for the Spartans. I know people who worked on the movie. I worked with Neil Hayes, who wrote the book on which the movie is based. I have been friends with sportswriters who have covered the team and have enjoyed entertaining chats with Terry Eidson (the assistant coach portrayed in a light and funny manner by Michael Chiklis, who provides an accurate depiction and provides a much-needed balance to Caviezel's intense Ladouceur). I live close enough to the football field to hear the team practice from my yard.
And, truth be told, I found the movie mildly disappointing. And not as someone unhappy about the creative license taken with the storyline or who was chosen to portray the real-life characters. That's Hollywood. But I walked out of the theater feeling like I'd seen an extremely glossy docudrama.
That said, the football scenes are realistic and full of adrenaline -- the Spartans' fatigue and heat issues in a pivotal game are captured well by director Thomas Carter ("Coach Carter," "Save the Last Dance"). Also, it would be difficult to overstate the inherent drama of Terrance Kelly -- one of the country's best high school players and seemingly all around good guy -- being killed pretty much randomly the night before he was to escape the nasty streets of Richmond for what many believed would be a slam-dunk successful college career.
But beyond the big-picture ideas, the film itself struggled to answer its own questions. The classic father-son conflicted subplot involving Ladouceur's son Danny (Matthew Daddario) was obvious and seemed forced to add to the coach's challenges. I kept waiting for difficult star Tayshon Lanear (Jessie Usher) to erupt, given his bountiful screen time and the difficulties he supposedly represented. There were a few obvious miscues (the portrayal of the media was beyond ridiculous).
Even if the De La Salle High School football program is a great story on its own merits -- and it really is -- the Hollywood treatment doesn't breed the kind of sympathy or interest a feature film requires. To enjoy this film requires the viewer to focus on the positive message -- that there's more to high school football than numbers on a scoreboard.
It was obvious De La Salle doesn't need the hype. Yet maybe the message does. Which Coach Ladouceur and the real Spartan insiders would likely have said all along.
Rating: PG for thematic material, a scene of violence and brief smoking
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Alexander Ludwig, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown, Ser'Darius Blain, Stephan James
Director: Thomas Carter, based on a book by Neil Hayes
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes