According to inspirational sports movies, winning demands you train hard, play with heart, be a team and not care about winning. So it goes in the sturdy, crowd-pleasing When the Game Stands Tall, a profile in saintliness puffed up from a true story: the Bay Area Catholic school whose football team enjoyed a 151-game winning streak in the early 2000s. Of course, one of the lessons that coach Bob Ladouceur (a stoic Jim Caviezel) teaches on screen is that winning isn’t everything, an assertion that’s true in real life and even moving in Neil Hayes’ book about Ladouceur but seems ridiculous in a movie that exists only because those De La Salle High School teams won so often. Here, where each football scene is juiced with Hollywood music and stunt work, Coach’s homilies play like a porn star stopping mid-thrust to tell us that what really matters is the love in your heart.
As the movie tells it, Ladouceur stuffed his student jocks with life lessons and Bible verses, inspiring them always to make the “perfect effort” rather than aspire to something so earthly as victory. (He also beseeches them to hit harder at the snap, just as Jesus would have.) Scott Marshall Smith’s script reduces to a confused parable the genuinely fascinating story of the real Ladouceur’s ambivalence toward that win streak — and a bigger-than-football tragedy his team faced in 2004.
Unlike the telling in Hayes’ book, there’s little arc here to what happens off the field. The coach realizes in the first act, after a health scare, that he has spent too much time on football and too little with his family. (Laura Dern nods sympathetically, stuck in one of those wife roles that demands the actress do nothing but egg on a husband.) Still, he keeps on with the job. His team suffers some setbacks, but everything is righted in a couple training montages, and Ladouceur never once experiences a moment of doubt … or generates one of drama.
Caviezel starred in The Passion of the Christ, and in one scene here he’s haloed in light like a Close Encounters alien disgorged from the mother ship. His Ladouceur seems to haunt our world without really being of it, and he always seems to have a great truth in mind that he will make everyone around him find for themselves. That might work in teaching, but it makes him a frustrating protagonist, especially since Caviezel, in a close-lipped performance, so rarely connects to the other actors.
By the end, the big question is not whether his team will win but whether, as it does, so will the players sufficiently honor his teachings. At a low point, talking to God, Coach declares that it’s wrong for any of us ever to wonder why lives so often get wrecked by inscrutable tragedy: “We cannot ask these questions,” he says “because to ask them is to question Your divine benevolence.” When the Game Stands Tall often reminds us that “Coach Lad” is teaching his athletes to be men rather than pros; is it healthy to instruct them that it’s a mortal sin ever to question a figure of righteous authority?
The movie is more effective as sports fantasy than as theology. It’s especially compelling if you favor highly dramatized football action, where each tackle sounds like a wooden ship crashing into an iceberg. Those sequences are exciting enough to win over sympathetic audiences, and for those unmoved by the action itself, there’s always a sportscaster on hand jabbering about how each play connects to the movie’s themes and subplots. As in Ron Howard’s Rush, this on-the-fly narration relieves the filmmakers of having to communicate effectively through well-composed and sharply edited shots, and it’s easy to imagine this as the future of commercial movies — maybe Vin Diesel can summarize the Fast 7 chases for us as we watch.
Some of the nonconcussive stuff works. Director Thomas Carter elicits ace performances from several of the young men in the cast, especially Stephan James and Ser’Darius Bain. Both play graduating seniors who yearn for their bright futures and burn with pride for what they’ve accomplished. Their characters schlep to De La Salle from a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Richmond, California. Their home lives are affectingly painted in several early scenes, a pleasant surprise in a great-white-coach flick for the faith-based crowd. Only one of the three principal black players on De La Salle’s team is depicted as the flashy showboat; Jessie Usher suffers the indignity of having to shout “Ah, heck no!” Refreshingly, none of the three needs the coach to save him. (The white kids get routine father-son drama that will one day afford TNT viewers the chance to make a sandwich.)
The film is most interesting when Carter and company break convention. To make a point about determination and teamwork, the coach and his boys take a field trip to a VA hospital to meet with recovering veterans, many of whom have lost limbs and are working through rigorous rehabilitation. The sequence is moving even as it’s hokey — it’s rare to see the human toll of our Mideast wars in a Hollywood film, yet the moral use of that toll here feels off. I don’t expect the De La Salle squad to run off and enlist, or to start picketing U.S. military engagements, but shouldn’t the suffering of our soldiers inspire something deeper than the will to play harder at a game the Lord doesn’t want you to want to win? Or is that one of those questions it’s a sin to ask?
When the Game Stands Tall feels as if it will connect with the audiences at which it’s aimed. If it doesn’t, and the movie doesn’t make whatever money the studio is expecting, I’m sure everyone involved will get hearty you-did-your-best hugs from the executives: What matters is effort, not success!