You know you’re watching a truly transcendent film when you’re so sucked into the action that you briefly begin to feel that you are a character in it. It’s a rare achievement and, in fairness, When The Game Stands Tall doesn’t quite pull it off. But it comes close.
The film based on the Neil Hayes book of the same name pits Hollywood staple Jim Caviezel as legendary Concord De La Salle coach Bob Ladouceur and The Shield’s Michael Chiklis as Ladouceur’s longtime assistant Terry Eidson. The curtain raises with a team in the midst of the longest winning streak of any sort in football history — 151 consecutive games — and a coach seemingly disenchanted with what he has accomplished. From there a series of unfortunate events takes the program’s attention away from the work it should be doing, leading to the end of The Streak in the first outing of the 2004 season (don’t worry, we’re not ruining the plot. If you didn’t know about De La Salle’s streak already, you probably aren’t a hard core prep football fan and likely aren’t reading this in the first place).
Like most Hollywood movies, this is a tale of redemption, which is a trick to pull when it focuses on a program that had achieved so much. De La Salle was and remains one of the nation’s premier high school football programs. It cranks out sectional champions and top college prospects at an almost even clip. So how could De La Salle ever be an underdog?
The answer, of course, has everything to do with the kinds of trials and tribulations that happen off the field, and show that even the greatest and most efficient programs fall pray to the crises and distractions that are endemic in school sports. Students come from a variety of backgrounds, some of them less savory than others. Coaching breeds stress, which can bring about unforeseen problems. In the end, all of that counts.
And that is a fitting epitaph for Ladouceur himself. As depicted in the movie, it’s what the longtime coach was obsessed with: not making mistakes, playing with a full and complete effort. When De La Salle achieved that, his pride swelled. When they didn’t, rather than get down he used it as a teaching moment to leave an impression on his charges. It’s also what drove Caviezel to the role, with Ladouceur’s passion for his athletes as students and people first immediately attracting him to the manuscript.
Interestingly, it’s a sentiment that may be best expressed by Chiklis’ Eidson in the film in the scene you see above, which Sony Pictures exclusively shared here at USA Today.
Caviezel proves to be a telling and terrific casting for the Mandalay Entertainment producers who put together the film and hired Thomas Carter, the man who brought America “Coach Carter” and “Save the Last Dance”, as their director. Caviezel is fantastic, purely because he remains an actor within himself, never overacting in large part because Ladouceur never did. He’s calmness personified, and only really shows emotional breaks and fissions when Ladouceur’s family is impacted, an aspect that the coach himself stressed was accurate to the author Neil Hayes after reading his first manuscript.
Is When The Game Stands Tall perfect? No. No film is perfect. There are a few plot lines that feel heavy and weighted. While Caviezel, Chiklis and Alexander Ludwig as star running back Chris Ryan — moviegoers under the age of 30 will immediately recognize him as Cato from The Hunger Games — put in terrific performances, a few other characters are heavy handed. In particular, Clancy Brown’s Mickey Ryan is far too easy a pantomime villain, and it’s hard to swallow the instant transformation of Jessie Usher’s problem child player Tayshon Lanear (even if his depiction is an accurate one). Others, including Laura Dern’s turn as Bev Ladouceur, are serviceable but never truly carry the film (sidenote: at this point, Laura Dern is just going to play mothers for the rest of her career, isn’t she?).
Still, none of that diminishes what the film accomplishes: It reinforces just how great and important prep sports can be when they’re entrusted to the right hands. Ladouceur embodied that at De La Salle, and this movie in turn reflects that vision appropriately. In terms of cinematic adaptations of sports books, it can safely be considered in the same category as Friday Night Lights as an artful yet accurate depiction of the on and off-field struggles of prep athletes and their coaches, and it should be a great comfort to all high school sports fans that it’s far more Push: Madison vs. Madison than it is Varsity Blues. We could all do with a little more good sports stories, and this is a great one to take note of.
The film opens August 22, and it’s well worth the two-plus hours you’ll spend in the theater, particularly if you are a high school football player, if you were one or live with one.