Not a huge fan of American sports, I went to see When the Game Stands Tall as a favor to a friend.
I enjoyed it more than I expected.
I knew that Jim Caviezel and Michael Chiklis were going to provide a solid performance as the coaches of a football team. I wasn’t disappointed there. Caviezel’s portrayal of the real-life coach Bob Ladoucer (whom, not being a sports fan, I had never heard of before today) was a brilliant blend of humanity and powerful leadership.
I came ready for a cheezy serving of pseudo-Christian moralism and some on-field drama, and instead I got a hefty helping of depth and drama. Well, I don’t expect anyone to win an Oscar for this film, but some of the issues touched on were surprising. Tragedy and death came up, and mortality swung by more than one direction. The film presents the twin realities of aging in a fallen world, first that we will all age and eventually pass on, and second that all of our glories and accomplishments will fade away like dust on the wind.
I enjoyed themes about young men who struggle to find their identities in the face of pressure, expectations, family, and friendships. As a martial artist I have always found some value in stories that present the virtues of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Those values were present here in spades.
In terms of earthly values, there is very little lacking in this film. Married men are dedicated and considerate of their wives. Wives are supportive. Young men are challenged to grow not just in strength of body but that of the heart as well. The threats of pride and the value of compassion come through here. This is a story about a football program that excels without losing track of the main purpose for High School athletics: the edification of the boys and girls as human beings first and as athletes second. The two are not mutually exclusive, and this movie makes the most of that.
Other issues that come up are: Pressure and abusive parents, gang violence, sportsmanship and manners, dedication, perseverance, belonging for the unimportant, acceptance of the different (Coach Sports God’s youngest son is a slender/artsy type musician, and there is never the slightest hint that he is any less valued in this football-centered family because of it!), and finding strength in others in the face of loss.
There was a lot more story in this movie than I anticipated. There were more games on screen than most sports films I can remember, and I am impressed that the film included all of it without making the real life scenes seem sufficient and the sports scenes feel unhurried.
I truly love the humility present in this story. The team’s victories have earned it glory, that is clear from the opening scene, but glory is never, ever the goal for the story’s protagonists. I cannot remember ever seeing a moment in a sports film where the coach sends his team members to take down signs advocating the team’s glory, because that’s how strongly he doesn’t believe in it.
There is a concept in this film: Perfect Effort. The idea that success and duty is about giving a perfect effort to our loved ones, our teammates, and those around us. It is the theme of the sport, and bleeds its way into the rest.
That is a great thought, but it is insufficient gospel. This is a semi-Christian film, so I will point out the fact that our own strength, dedication, and effort are never going to be enough. We falter. We fail. We, in other words, sin. That is why there IS a Savior, and why we need his grace. We can give our all only when we know that God is there to catch us when we fall.
But as far as earthly morality, sportsmanship, dedication, and all of its other attributes, as well as a solid score, decent cinematography, and some solid supporting acting on behalf of younger cast members, this film gets my full recommendation.