Friday, August 29, 2014

When the Game Stands Tall: Gridiron glory

When the Game Stands Tall (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for mild intensity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang

Inspirational sports sagas are the ultimate feel-good movies; they engage our souls and pluck at the heart, particularly when adversity and underdog status are part of the equation.

And most particularly when they’re true.

Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel, center right), assistant coach Terry Eidson (Michael
Chiklis, center left) and members of the De La Salle Spartans react with undisguised
dread as the much larger and tougher members of the Long Beach Poly team take the
field. What follows is, by far, this film's most exciting chapter. 
Director Thomas Carter has fashioned a stirring drama from former Contra Costa Times sportswriter Neil Hayes’ 2003 nonfiction book, which profiled De La Salle High School football coach Bob Ladouceur at a point when his team had amassed a truly stunning streak of victories. Scripters Scott Marshall Smith and David Zelon have remained pretty close to established fact, allowing for the usual composite characters, one fast-and-loose modification of what happened when, and a needlessly melodramatic sidebar conflict between a young player and his overbearing father.

Those issues aside, Carter’s film is far more accurate than most that claim to be “inspired” by actual events; he respectfully captures the deeply spiritual tone that characterized Ladouceur’s entire coaching career, along with the atypically close ties and locker room candor that bonded the young players.

Yes, they really did take the field, at the start of each game, holding hands.

At first blush, star Jim Caviezel is a perfect fit for Ladouceur; as archive footage of the coach reveals, during the film’s closing credits, Caviezel looks and carries himself in much the same way. He adds the same heartfelt weight to the soulful pep talks that were typical of Ladouceur’s approach: “Winning a lot of football games is doable. Teaching kids there’s more to life, that’s hard.”

We don’t doubt, for a moment, that Caviezel’s Ladouceur genuinely cares about every single one of his players, off the field even more than on.

That said, Caviezel never has been an expressive actor, and those same closing-credits clips also show that the actor lacks the actual coach’s fire and passion. Caviezel is one of the acting community’s Mr. Cools, as his ongoing stint on TV’s Person of Interest reveals quite clearly. He’s dry and flinty, much like Clint Eastwood, and relies on half-smiles, grim silences and stern frowns to get his emotive point across.

Doesn’t always work. Co-star Laura Dern, as Ladouceur’s wife Bev, acts circles around him. She conveys greater emotional depth, in a few brief scenes, than Caviezel manages in the entire film. This is most apparent during the crisis that opens this story, as Ladouceur narrowly survives a heart attack that would have killed many men. Caviezel simply cannot sell the epiphany of Ladouceur’s initial post-recovery chat with his wife, as he acknowledges having been an absentee husband and father because of over-commitment to the job.

Nor does the film really address that issue, moving forward. Given Caviezel’s thespic limitations, that’s probably for the best.

On the other hand, Caviezel excels at scenes that require quiet, heartfelt solemnity, as when Ladouceur extols a young man at the church funeral that follows unexpected tragedy. Caviezel definitely is the guy I’d want to sum up my life, under such circumstances.

The film begins with a changing of the guard, as the De La Salle Spartans have just collected their 12th straight state championship, accomplished with a string of 151 (!) consecutive victories. The graduating senior players — as typified by Terrance “T.K.” Kelly (Stephan James) and Cam Colvin (Ser’Darius Blain) — are fielding offers from pro leagues, thereby passing the Spartan reins to juniors such as running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), attitude-challenged Tayshon Lanear (Jessie Usher) and Ladouceur’s own son, Danny (Matthew Daddario).

Chris, positioned by this script as one of the team’s superstar heir apparents, is trying to break another statewide record: the most touchdowns during a high school career. This pending achievement is thrust constantly into Chris’ face by his overbearing, trophy-obsessed father, Mickey (Clancy Brown).

Carter allows Brown to overplay this role egregiously, which is a shame; it’s the only false character note in the entire story. Far more credible is the relationship between T.K. and his father (Terence Rosemore) and grandmother (Adella Gautier): a well-developed family unit that grants this story considerable heart.

No other parents are present, for the most part, possibly because Carter focuses on our need to distinguish a dozen or so of the young players, initially a challenge in itself.

But we soon sort them out. Aside from Chris, Tayshon and Danny, Joe Massingill stands out as Beaser, a large boy who nonetheless feels insecure in his position as defensive end. He’s a gentle soul, and Massingill does well with this contrast between the kid’s quiet nature and the powerhouse requirements of his place in an already aggressive sport.

At the extreme other end of the size scale is the diminutive Arturo (Matthew Frias), a part of the team for four years, but as yet never sent into a game. He’s pragmatic about this, well aware of his slight stature — one wonders how he would have made the cut in the first place — and compensates with a genial, accommodating bearing.

Which brings us back to the primary trio. Ludwig does his best with the demanding extremes of his role, each time Chris attempts to confront his father; we desperately wait for this kid to haul off and deck his obnoxious parent, but Ladouceur has taught the kid too well (which is the point, actually). Still, this becomes an intriguing sidebar conflict, and we wonder how it will resolve.

Usher is appropriately obnoxious as the token grandstander: a cynical kid who insists there’s a “ME” in “TEAM.” He doesn’t buy into Ladouceur’s huggy-bear philosophy, believing instead that the world is harsh and cruel, and that a smart guy looks out solely for himself. His eventual epiphany is rather pat — and rapid — but this narrative shortcut is forgivable.

On the other hand, Daddario could have used more time to better flesh out Danny. Given the importance placed on the estrangement between father and son, Caviezel and Daddario have too little to work with. As it is, Danny comes off as a whiny, self-centered brat: attitudes completely at odds with his father’s bonding philosophies. Okay, so that makes sense in terms of the average rebellious teen, but the whole point of this story is that these kids aren’t average.

Michael Chiklis adds considerable spirit, and a bit of humor, as Terry Eidson, Ladouceur’s longtime friend and coaching partner.

Aside from Dern’s Bev Ladouceur, the story is bereft of women. A few of the players’ girlfriends get token lines, but nothing substantial enough to establish character.

Carter and his scripters prefer to keep Ladouceur and the team front and center, along with the drama of what happens to this new Spartan dynasty, as they assume the responsibility of continuing that amazing winning streak. Indeed, the artistic decision to begin this story at the climax of that streak, rather than allowing us to see it develop, is clever and intriguing.

That’s because what comes next is much more interesting.

The story’s exciting high point comes during a grueling game against Southern California’s Long Beach Poly, a team that outweighs and seriously outnumbers the smaller De La Salle kids, who are further hampered by playing during an afternoon when the temperature climbs to 100 degrees. The Long Beach Poly team has a much larger roster, allowing players to rotate and remain fresh; the Spartans lack that luxury (which, frankly, seems rather unfair).

Carter spends a lot of time on this game, whose outcome leaves us breathless and emotionally spent; editor Scott Richter and cinematographer Michael Lohmann do their best to keep us at the edge of our seats.

Only one problem: De La Salle didn’t play Long Beach Poly during the 2004 season covered by this story. That happened three years earlier, which rather dents the game’s crucial relevance to the story as presented by this film. (Check this Contra Costa Times article for a detailed outline of what this film gets right and sorta right, and what Smith and Zelon make up completely.)

Carter’s film runs a bit long, at 115 minutes, but you likely won’t feel the time. He knows how to pace the narrative, and he’s been down this road before, having directed Samuel L. Jackson in 2005’s basketball-themed Coach Carter. The facts of the matter are simple: The events depicted in When the Game Stands Tall are mesmerizing, even with some fictionalized characters and time-shifted details. You’ll leave the theater exhilarated, but don’t depart too soon; you won’t want to miss the aforementioned archive footage shown during the closing credits.

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