Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Way That's Harsh And Fruitful: A Review Of "When The Game Stands Tall" ★★★★

Ever played on a competitive sports team? How about a high school club? Does it seem that there's a cycle to high school sports? There's the phase when the training, the pressure, the strain is all about the win, the record, the ring. Then follows the phase where suddenly these old ambitions are reduced to their true value, and all the energy becomes an investment not only into athletic excellence but into personal substantiation. When the Game Stands Tall is a movie keenly dedicated to this cyclical tension - a linebacker about to rock you over as the story, based on real accounts, intertwines the ever-powerful metaphor of high school football with the very literal angst of life. Don't get caught flat-footed!

The movie, directed by Thomas Carter, follows now acclaimed coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) as he tries to navigate through one of the most pivotal years in the life of the De La Salle High School football program, the Spartans. The team has just come off a climactic year, recording their famous 151st consecutive win ("the Streak" stretching about over a decade), further establishing the team's image as one of sheer athletic dominance, or at least so far. Few know, however, that behind the remarkably unparalleled success of De La Salle is a coach who teaches humility, honesty and integrity on and off the field, often referring to the words found in the Gospels. He teaches his team - his students - that more important than winning is having a winning character. Yet, the young team, of juniors and seniors alike, struggles with the concept of humility and meekness. Referring to Luke's Gospel, Coach Bob exhorts that if you "give, then it shall be added unto you." But does that make sense? Why is it then that a kid, who does his best to help others, is losing his mom to cancer? Where is the reward in that kind of lost situation? Perhaps the proper way to live in this unjust life is to take what you need and leave the other guys to fend for themselves.
     This is a team caught in a teeter-tottering struggle to find their grace when it's tremendously easy to get muddled in the hype of "The Streak" and the glory of a winning season. Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), the star player for the Spartans, is on the verge of scoring the team's touchdown record in his final season as a Spartan. It's his season. His moment. His time to shine. After all, doesn't he deserves it? Bob Ladouceur, for all his idealistic fervor and honorable character, has his own demons to take care of. His success as probably the greatest high school football coach around has prompted a multitude of lucrative job offers from colleges. But not only do these Big Time offers provide a temptation for him, Bob struggles to distinguish between his role as a coach and as a father, if the distinction can or should even be made. Questions, all around, blitz our De La Salle squad to the point where the beleaguered youth must decide a way forward where moral compromise is as likely, even more so, than statistical downfall. All of this on the eve of their greatest and most physically demanding challenge to date: a scheduled game with a big, brash and fast team that is every bit an equal for De La Salle.
     The theme of pride and humility is firmly planted in the soil, but as the team's struggles begin to unravel before the start of the season, pain and loss are clearly focal to the younger story developments and the team's winning pedigree hardly seems relevant. Loved ones of athletes dying bedside with only waning time to delay the imminent. An athlete whole and sincere, beloved among family, cherished among friends, unjustly murdered during the night. A coach, who tries to teach who he can a dependable moral code to live by, suffers from a heart attack. All of this and on the edge of a decisive season for many. Why do such terrible things happen to such good intending people? Has God cursed them? Is this all because they were bad people? What did they do to deserve this? The answers to the early questions are not clearly answered. How could they be? Bob Ladouceur, who recovered swiftly from his heart attack incident, after all was able to return to coaching only to find a group of kids who were divided between those for a persevering effort and those for a persevering "Streak". When the team loses its first two games of the season, bitter reality hits that they are not a team built for perfect performance. The ultimate question the team must face, before total disaster looms, is what are they built for?
The Verdict
     When the Game Stands Tall deals with reality at it's most essential in a way that's realistic, comprehensible and completely accessible. Most people know what sports pressure is like. Everyone knows what life pressure is like. This inspiring movie is both true and compelling, escaping ostentatious writing but hardly avoiding all the necessary clichés of a High School football movie: the packed stadium cheering and jeering, the school band playing, the cheerleaders, the hotheaded parent in the crowd, the pregame huddle, the near-catastrophic injury, the close call and the anxiety of the final down to bring home the marbles. But we can forgive the film its occasionally cheesy effects because it's a serious movie that doesn't take football too seriously. It's a movie that keeps sports in its proper place and places life in all its complexity and murkiness at center-field. It's a movie that accentuates the gain of victory and defeat, the reward of pleasure and anguish alike. It promotes a message of utter and complete selflessness and service that desperately needs to be transmitted in the sporting world. The idea is not to get more coaches to take their kids to PTS recovery facilities to teach about humility. The idea is to encourage more competitors to examine their motives and to take a deeper look into what matters in life.
     The film is well put together, surprisingly, sticking relentlessly to a realism without exaggeration or unnecessary distraction. The action is rugged, and I often found it difficult to decide what was more poignant, the sound of bodies smacking the ground or the sight of the mourning parents of a dead son. My only personal disliking of the film was that I find it hard to imagine my Jimmy Caviezel as a motivational football coach, but even then, he's certainly a great actor able to the task. There were also one or two loose ends left at the end but I hardly clued in since I was so satisfied with the rest of the film. I award the movie, When the Game Stands Tall, a proud 4 out of 5. Truly worth watching!                      

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