When the Game Stands Tall is a pretty nifty example of the inspiring teacher/sports movie subgenre. Inspiring teacher movies are all about how wonderful teachers change the lives of young people–Dead Poet’s Society, To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, you can probably think of twenty others. Sports movies are generally about how a sports hero overcomes tremendous odds to win The Big Game–Rocky, Rush, Rudy. So, an inspiring teacher/sports movie is about how a great coach teaches his/her young athletes to succeed, and to win The Big Game–Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights. I used to be a teacher, and come from a family of teachers–I love inspiring teacher movies. I’m also a sports nut–love sports movies. It therefore follows that I’m a total sucker for ITSMs. And When the Game Stands Tall is a first rate example of the genre. If you like this kind of movie, you’ll like this one a lot; if you don’t, you probably won’t.
Jim Caviezel stars as Bob Ladouceur, football coach of the De La Salle High School Spartans, a team that over fifteen years, never lost. 151 in a row. De La Salle was also a religious school, and Ladouceur teaches a kind of seminary class. Bible studies. He was (and is) a devout Christian, and that’s why he’s stayed coaching at De La Salle, turning down much more lucrative college coaching offers. He thinks he can have his biggest positive impact on young men’s lives by coaching at the high school level, initially very much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Bev (Laura Dern), who thinks it would be swell if he were home with his family occasionally, and also, gosh, more money sure would be nice. That conflict (which could be huge, but in this film, isn’t), doesn’t take up much of the film, especially after Ladouceur has a heart attack and has to turn over spring practice to his best friend and assistant head coach, Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis). When Ladouceur finally is able to return to coaching, the guys on the team are busy sniping at each other, and lack the unity that had previously been their legacy. They lose; the streak ends at 151. They lose the next week as well. This sets up The Big Game, a televised battle with a rival school from Long Beach, a much deeper and bigger squad, against whom they basically have no chance; Apollo Creed, to their Rocky Balboa.
So it’s pretty conventional stuff. There’s also a brush with tragedy–a star player is murdered sitting in his car, and the coach and community have to deal with the tricky theological implications of random acts of murder, the unfairness that strikes us all when young people die unnecessarily. There’s the ‘inspiring team-building field trip,’ like the trip the team takes to Gettysburg in Remember the Titans; in this film, they go to a local VA hospital and work with wounded soldiers. There are the obligatory ‘working hard in practice’ montages. The players gradually are distinguished from each other, individualized, and each gets a moment of triumph. It’s all very well done, well acted and filmed, and the football sequences are believable and well filmed, if, of course, a tad implausible. And, as usual with high school sports movies, the actors are consistently five years older than the kids they’re supposed to be playing. But let all that go. It’s all well done and effective.
When the Game Stands Tall departs from convention nicely, though, in that it does not end with the Big Game. After all, the Big Game for De La Salle was the third game of the season. There was an entire season to finish, and the movie takes another twenty minutes to finish it. But it’s not really a let down, because the focus shifts to the team’s star running back, Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), and his story. Ryan is very close to state record for career touchdowns, a record his abusive father (the always dependable Clancy Brown) very much wants him to break. Ludwig is very convincing as a big, John Riggins-style running back, a bruiser with speed, and he’s a terrific young actor otherwise. (All the kids in the movie are–really a fine collection of good young actors). So in the season’s final game, Ryan’s quest to break that record becomes the main storyline of the movie. No spoilers here, but I found it very satisfying, at least thematically. The movie is not, after all, about a football team with a long winning streak, but about the values of teamwork and sacrifice and character that the best coaches always stress and embody.
I never had an inspirational high school coach, because I didn’t play sports in high school. But my high school drama teacher was a remarkable woman, a life-changingly inspirational coach to me and to hundreds of other kids in our high school. So I get the concept. My guess is that if you’re someone who likes inspiring teacher movies but are personally indifferent to the game of football, you’ll probably like this movie a lot nonetheless.
It’s very easy, of course, to be cynical about a movie like this, a very Christian-centric movie about how sports build character and how life lessons are taught by brilliant teachers. But I didn’t find myself cynical in the least. I found it very powerful and moving. But again, I’m a sucker for movies like this.