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MOVIE REVIEW: WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is when character counts

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151. That’s the number of games the De La Salle High School Spartan football team won - consecutively. That’s right. In a row. Without a loss. A 12-year winning streak. It’s a record that will stand for the ages. It’s a record that no professional sports team, no college team, no other high school team, no Pop Warner or Little League team, no international team - in any sport - has even come close to touching. And it was all done under the leadership of De La Salle head coach Bob “Coach Lad” Ladouceur and assistant coach/athletic director, Terry Eidson. But before you think this is “just another football or sports movie”, think again. WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is the story behind the story. This is a story that is not only a character study of a man, but a character study of men; how a man rises above the challenges of life, rises above adversity, meets life head on and moves on with strength, dignity and even, redemption. In short, character counts. And with WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL there is plenty of character, ethics and integrity to go around.

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Based on a the book by sportswriter Neil Hayes who provided up close and personal coverage of the Spartans and Coach Lad for the Contra Costa News, we meet the De La Salle Spartans at the height of their winning streak. As season 12 of the streak ends on a high, the dedicated and proud seniors pass the torch to the younger classmen on the team, the second string who now move up to first string, the young men who now carry the weight of history and high expectations on their shoulders. But, you know from the start, the load is heavy as the mindset of several players looking to be superstars breaks the cohesive “look out for the other guy” design of Coach Lad’s philosophy while parental pressure brutalizes the spirit of others. “Arrogance and apathy” become the watchwords of the day and if you haven’t already heard about the Spartans tragedies and triumphs through sports coverage over the years, you know the Spartans are in for an uphill battle in the Fall.

During the summer, tragedy strikes the Spartans. Coach Lad is felled by a heart attack and although on the mend post-surgery, is ordered by his physicians not to coach. With tensions already high among the boys, Coach Eidson, now serving as “head coach” during Coach Lad’s recovery, is losing faith and has his doubts as to what the new season will bring. The well grounded philosophies that have served as the core of the Lad-Eidson coaching methods aren’t working. Chris Ryan, the team’s new quarterback and under constant pressure of his die-hard somewhat abusive fanatic of a father, lacks the leadership skills of his predecessors, worrying more about impressing Pops than looking out for the guy next to him on the field. Tayshan Lanear has an ego larger than the Spartan 12-year win streak while poor Beaser is just looking for some guidance and leadership from his teammates, leadership on the field that isn’t materializing. Adding fuel to the frustration is Coach Lad’s own son Danny who has can’t seem to find a happy medium in his relationship with his father. Having always wanted more quality father-son time in the past, now Danny is angry that his father can’t coach him on the football field. Also weighing on Eidson is the Fall Schedule. Ridiculed by many coaches as having their remarkable win streak due to playing “weak teams”, Eidson has opened up the field by adding the toughest teams in California - and by extension, the nation - to the roster, with an eye towards a #1 ranking if they can beat Long Beach Poly.

But before the Spartans can even get to SoCal, more tragedy strikes as former Spartan T.K. Kelly is murdered. Days away from heading off to college he is gunned down by a 15-year old while sitting in his car waiting to pick up a friend who had called him for a ride. The entire De La Salle community feels the loss and all eyes turn to Coach Lad for comfort and inspiration. The good news is that the doctor releases Coach Lad from medical leave and allows him to return to coaching. The bad news, the team is still all about the “I” and not the “we” and it doesn’t take long for the boys to get their comeuppance. At the hands of a little known team from Bellevue, Washington, the Spartans get their asses handed to them in a 39-20 loss, the most points racked up against De La Salle in Coach Lad’s 25+ year coaching history. The streak that stood since December 7, 1991 is gone. Can they redeem themselves and each other? Losing yet another game after Bellevue, the showdown with Long Beach Poly is next.

With the clock ticking, battling brutal 100+ degree heat in the air and 120+ degree heat on the field, out-muscled and out-manned, the De La Salle-Long Beach Poly face-off is a true David versus Goliath battle. It’s time for each Spartan to show himself, and the world, what he’s truly made of; it’s the time WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL.

Having met and interviewed Bob Ladouceur and Terry Eidson themselves, more perfect casting could not have been found than Jim Caviezel and Michael Chiklis, respectively. Ladouceur is a man of few words with a calm and kind reticence about him. Eidson on the other hand, is gregarious, upbeat with a sassiness to him that is fun and light-hearted. Apart, each feels as if half of a whole. Together, the circle is complete. And this is exactly the chemistry and emotion that Caviezel and Chiklis create. Caviezel is tacit strength and calm. And let’s face it. Could there be a more perfect casting for a man with the moral code and compass of Ladouceur than Caviezel, the man who played Jesus Christ in “Passion of the Christ”? Chiklis is exuberant fun and just strengthens the foundational guidance of the film and the philosophies of Coach Lad.

So, just what are Coach Lad’s philosophies that have proved so effective over the decades? A theology teacher at De La Salle, and as shown in the film, one would expect the script and some intense monologues to be filled with scripture and heavy religious bent. Such is not the case. According to Coach Lad, “[Our school] is good about humility. It’s good about [the idea] there’s always something bigger than yourselves and the collective spirit of a group is much, much better than one standing alone. We believe that. We try to promote that and live that.” Not missing a beat, Eidson points out that even when the duo started coaching at De La Salle back when they were in their 20's, “[W]e started that even though we were hard on them, they knew that we had their best interests in mind and that’s always been our philosophy. Lad’s always said, ‘I’m not your buddy. I’m your coach. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you and I don’t love you.’ We’ve always taken that approach with the kids.” And that’s exactly what comes across in the film.

And as for Caviezel and Chiklis in their character portrayals? It’s only right to ask the men whom they are playing. For Eidson, “Bob and my wife told me that Michael Chiklis had me spot-on and so they know me the best. I thought he did a great job for me. The sarcastic humor that is me during games and things, and our relationship [Ladouceur & Eidson], I thought they did a great job with that. I thought it was amazing how they picked up on our opposite personalities.” Coach Lad felt the same about Caviezel’s performance. “I thought Jim did a really good job. I thought out demeanors are very close and our personalities are real close. I kind of approach kids in a very subtle way and one-on-one usually, mostly. . . I thought they did a real good job of portraying us the way we were and the way we are.”

Exceptional performance comes from Alexander Ludwig. A composite of several players, as Chris Ryan, Ludwig brings an authenticity to the role that mirrors his own growth on screen as he has gone from “The Hunger Games” to “Vikings”. He finds a strong foothold in the emotional arc of Ryan, particularly when going toe-to-toe with Clancy Brown who brings a frenetic ferocity to the role of Ryan’s father. According to Ludwig, “we pushed the envelope and went for it. We didn’t hold back.” Some brutally honest and intensely emotional scenes between the two you may find a bit shocking, but it was important to Ludwig and Brown that “we make it real.”

Making it real with palpable emotion are Ser’Darius Blain and Stephan James as best friends and college-bound graduates Cam Colvin and TK Kelly. Dynamic, emotional, their connection resonates and embodies the Ladouceur principles. A personal fave and real breakout is Joe Massingill who steals the game and your heart as Beaser. Although appearing in a few prior films and as a semi-regular on the small screen in “Hart of Dixie”, Massingill stands tall here. Be on the lookout for him. Rounding out the principals is Laura Dern who does a serviceable turn as Ladouceur’s wife, Bev, but appearing more or less as a reference point for Coach Lad’s conscience and as a touchstone to family life.

Directed by Thomas Carter and adapted for the screen by Scott Marshall Smith, WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL has it all. As if the 151 game winning streak of the Spartans isn’t enough to warrant immortalization on film, Bob Ladouceur’s story most certainly is. For those that don’t know, De La Salle High School is a Roman Catholic private school in Concord, California. With its motto “Men of Faith”, one would think that WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL would be hammering us over the head with scripture. It doesn’t. Where Carter and Smith excel is at capturing the observational aspects of Coach Lad and allowing us to see these young men and life itself through his eyes. It’s a delicate balance that sets WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL apart from other films. This isn’t to say you won’t find religious cliches and sports cliches, because you do, but it’s the understated foundation of faith and the over-riding principles of integrity, ethics, the idea there’s always something bigger than yourselves, the collective spirit of a group that elevate the story.

Standout is the athletic aspect of the film, starting with the intensive training of not only the actors, but second unit players who all have a football background. Enduring extensive and intensive training under the guise of well known boot camp trainer Duke Rousse, actors, stunt doubles and players alike all went through the same training and integrated their play and work amongst each other.

Serving as sports coordinator and working hand in hand with cinematographer Michael Lohmann is Allen Graf. The best in the biz with sports lensing, Graf brought in NFL Films camera operators to capture the action. Scott Richter dazzles with his handling of the insanity of seamless editing of the action on and off field, immersing us in the midst of play, in the middle of the field, on the goal line, in the ebullient and even tear-filled locker rooms. With Thomas Carter’s vision and staying true to the story of De La Salle and Bob Ladouceur, the integration of game footage and the synergy of the technical excellence of Graf and his team, Richter and Lohmann is mind-blowing. Key is that Carter keeps his eye - and ours - on the ball, focusing on the players and the coaches. A bit short on goal, however, is the sound design. While appreciated and effective so as to further intensify the “you are there” feeling, some of the Foley with bone crushing sounds on the football field are a bit too intense, leading to distraction.

Stay through the credits. There’s some great locker room footage as well as game footage of Bob Ladouceur and his Spartans over the years, as well as some moving footage of the real TK Kelly and the aftermath of his murder.

A true family film founded on principles that can make us all stand tall, WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is aspiring, inspiring and heartwarming.

Directed by Thomas Carter

Written by Scott Marshall Smith based on the book by Neil Hayes

Cast: Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Alexander Ludwig, Clancy Brown, Laura Dern, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James, Joe Massingill

WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL kicks off nationwide on August 22, 2014.

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