The Spirit of the Game is an LDS film, a Mormon movie. I’m a Mormon, and a movie nut. So my initial inclination is to go easy on a film that is certainly well-intentioned. And it tells an interesting story. And Aaron Jakubenko, who stars in it, is very good, even though he can’t play basketball. There’s a lot to like here. The theater was half-full when I saw it (an early weekday matinee), so that’s encouraging. And it’s certainly not as bad as, say, The Home Teachers, which remains the flaming dragon’s breath of hell worst movie ever made, ever, by anyone.
On the other hand, The Spirit of the Game starts off not very good, and ends goshawful, and that also needs to be said. And if we want cinematic depictions of our faith and culture to improve, we do need to foster a candid critical culture. And sorry, gentle readers, but spoilers will abound. Advance apologies to everyone.
The Spirit of the Game is about the Mormon Yankees, an LDS missionary basketball team that was asked to teach the Australian national team hoops fundamentals in time for the 1956 Olympics. It focuses on one guy, DeLyle Condie (Jakubenko), an Idaho kid who, we’re told, is one of the stars of the University of Utah basketball team. He falls in love, gets engaged to a nice girl named Emily (Emilie Cocquerel)–the movie spends lots of time on that romance. And then she breaks his heart, dumps him for another dude. So Condie, rebounding, decides to go on a mission, and is sent to Australia.
Written and directed by J. D. Scott, it’s not really about basketball much, or the Olympics at all. Really, it’s about the power of male Mormon patriarchy. Every single major decision in the movie made by any character is preceded by an Inspiring Speech by a male authority figure. Or not, actually; Condie gets engaged precipitously, without permission from her father, or an Inspiring Speech from his father. That’s why the engagement fails.
When writing a screenplay, you have to decide that sorts of scenes to privilege. Obviously, a certain amount of screen time has to be given to basic exposition–who are these people, what do they want, why should we care? This movie gives immense amounts of screen time to Inspiring Speeches. It just stops dead in its tracks, and lets a male authority figure deliver an IS. At which point, Our Hero, Elder Condie (the least volitional protagonist in the history of film), is redirected. Except when its him giving the speeches.
So, he arrives in Australia, meets the mission President–Inspiring Speech. He meets considerable opposition–nobody’s interested, kids throw tomatoes at him. He gets discouraged, writes his Dad (Kevin Sorbo!). Inspiring Letter keeps him going. He’s offered the opportunity to help coach up the Aussie national team. But the mission President (Mark Mitchell), says no, in an Inspiring Speech full of appropriate bromides. Condie writes his father. And then, see, we get what passes for a plot twist. Condie wants to play basketball, but he’s stymied. But his father is also a male authority figure, and knows a higher one. So Dad writes President David O. McKay, who gives an Inspiring Speech to the rest of the First Presidency about the proselyting power of basketball, then orders the Mission President to let the boys play. And Condie becomes the coach of the Mormon Yankees. Which means he’s now a male authority figure, and authorized to give Inspiring Speeches too. Which he does, repeatedly. And so, finally, the movie half over, we get to seeing people play basketball.
And, oh my gosh, are they bad at it.
There are two basic approaches you can take when making a basketball movie. You can cast actors, and teach them how to play. Or you can take basketball players, and teach them how to act. Both can work. The greatest basketball movie of all time, Hoosiers, cast guys who could actually play basketball. White Men Can’t Jump took the other approach. They’re both good movies. Jakubenko is a good looking kid, and fairly athletic looking. I don’t doubt that he worked hard. But he has a high dribble, where he runs really fast kind of slapping at the ball, which bounces up around his chin. He dribbles like every kid on my son’s Junior Jazz team when he was six. And Condie’s supposed to be the point guard! Jakubenko can’t shoot, and never has to–they cut around him, use lots of hand-held camera, and basically fake the basketball sequences. (Condie does hit a couple of layups). He’ll shoot a jumper–and oh, that form!–and then they cut to a ball going in. And it’s called ‘the hoop’, people–at one point, they actually call it a ‘ring.’ I wanted to strangle someone.
I don’t mean to be unkind, but if you’re going to make a movie about basketball, let me gently suggest that you have someone on-set who actually knows something about basketball. One kid in the movie had a decent jump shot, and another kid could jump a little–they let him get all the rebounds. But mostly, during the basketball bits, I averted my eyes.
Sports movies always have to build to a Big Game climax, and this one is no exception. The movie kind of forgets about how the Mormon Yankees are supposed to be coaching the Aussie team, and lets them play in a pre-Olympics warm up tournament, a decision that requires another IS. And they’re really good, we’re told–able to hold their own against all the Olympic teams. The Big Game is against the nasty wasty French team. (The coach of the French team has a moustache, and twirls it, I’m totally not kidding). So that’s the big game–a nationally televised (in Australia) game between the Mormon Yankees and the thuggish French nationals. And, see, the French play dirty. And our virtuous boys can’t respond in kind, of course, as Condie reminds them in one of his Inspiring Speeches. They’re playing for God or something.
This is a major Spoiler, but I have to do this; at the end of the Big Game, this movie goes completely off the rails. Let me set it up for you. There are 9 guys on the Mormon Yankees team. That’s important–remember that number: 9. The game is very close, though how close we don’t know because the movie never shows us the score. Anyway, our guys are all wearing brave little dabs of makeup blood on their faces, to show how dirty the French are. There’s a collision between Condie and a French kid. Condie looks dazed. Time for a concussion protocol intervention, except, wait, this is 1956 and they didn’t worry about concussions. So Condie (who is also the team coach) may have to come out of the game. And the referee says “you’re down to three players, you’re going to have to forfeit.”
What? Are you kidding me? I sat there in the theater, absolutely dumb-founded. They have 9 guys on the team. They’re down to 3?!?!? How did that happen? How did (carry the 7, multiply by pi) 6 guys either foul out or get injured? We didn’t see anyone foul out. We didn’t see anyone get injured. What we see is Condie getting fouled, resulting in . . . someone else on his team getting disqualified? And the French team getting the ball out of bounds? Also, the ref (an Olympic referee) is talking forfeit? He doesn’t know the rules well enough to know that you are, actually allowed to play 3 on 5?
What happens is this: Condie shakes off his brain fog, gives an Inspiring Speech, and he and his pals do battle, 3 on 5. And for once, the movie gets the basketball a little right–the French, with a two man advantage, spread the floor and go backdoor for the game winning layup (though the final score remains a classified military secret). Condie hangs his head for a bit. But the Aussie crowd goes wild, standing O, cheering with enthusiasm, and then rushing the court to make appointments with the missionaries for discussions leading to mass baptisms. (I may have made that last bit up).
If that ending doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it doesn’t make sense. (6 guys fouled out, that’s like 60 free throws–no wonder that the Frenchies won). I was reduced to sitting there in the movie theater going “What? What?” This is not how you should feel at the end of a feel-good sports movie.
I will say this about it: the cars all looked great. It used all these vintage ’50s cars, and they all looked terrific. And there’s a throwaway character, a little kid named Lindsay Gaze, who I assume was Andrew Gaze’s grandfather. And teenaged Bill Russell makes a brief appearance. (And why oh why do the opening credits run over footage from Texas Western beating Kentucky? In 1966?) So it had some nostalgia value for fans. (Also, I’m a Utah Jazz fan, and there are two Aussies on our squad this year).
Still. This. A story of a group of missionaries teaching the inept Australian basketball team how to play basketball is an inherently comedic one, isn’t it? Isn’t it hoops Cool Runnings? But instead, we get this exercise in patriarchal sanctimony. It’s not terrible. But it was unfortunate. That’s a good story. Hope someone tells it better some day.