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'When the Game Stands Tall' Review: Sports drama adheres to cliches not heart

When the Game Stands Tall

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The sports drama. It’s a genre where it’s easy to succumb to clichés in order to get by. You know, the ones that strive to be inspirational, even for those watching who have no sporting desire, but end up being overly sentimental.

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Being sports fan I was well aware of the events chronicled in When the Game Stands Tall. The drama revolves around the De La Salle Spartans, the varsity football team of a Concord, California high school, that amassed the longest winning streak in organized football: 151 games over 12 undefeated seasons (1992-2004).

There have been many individual achievements in sports that have been worth lauding (Lou Gehrig’s 56-game hitting streak, Cal Ripken playing in 2,632 consecutive games, et al.), but when it comes to winning streaks for team sports perhaps the best comparisons would be on the collegiate level. Legendary coach John Wooden led UCLA’s men’s basketball team to a winning streak of 88 games (1971-1974). The UConn Huskies women’s basketball team would eclipse that streak more than thirty years later when they won 90 consecutive games. Both are monumental achievements spearheaded by coaches who do more than teach the fundamentals, they use the game to make those players into better human beings.

Had When the Game Stands Tall been more about Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) and the ideals he professes on the field and in a classroom – De La Salle is a Roman Catholic private school – instead of becoming over reliant on football serving as the big moments in the movie, then maybe it could reside alongside Friday Night Lights and Hoosiers as high school sports movies that get it right.

Because the streak is snapped early on, the rising action has the team starting anew, trying to regroup and start a new streak, as opposed to – if I can borrow a sports cliché – taking it one game at a time. A missed opportunity is seeing how much the snapping of the streak deflates the school and the community. We see it a little in the players, and maybe that is the intent – to see their resilience. But we are offered little in the way of introspection.

Though, to be fair, it is the off-season upon winning their twelfth state title where the foundation of the Spartans’ unblemished record begins to crack. During the summer, a star player with a full ride to the University of Oregon is shot to death and coach Ladouceur suffers a heart attack. After the team goes from 151-0 to 151-1 it becomes less about being perfect and more about how losing is a character boost. It is in these situations where the clichés start to creep up and take over. Notwithstanding the movie’s title being borrowed from the non-fiction novel about the 2002 De La Salle championship team, probably the biggest hindrance is the need of a fictional composite for one of the central characters. Bob Ladouceur and his assistant coach Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis) are true to life, as is the slain teen T.K. Kelly, but running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), known as “Beast,” is a pretense of the running back core of the champion Spartans. And with him we also get the overbearing father staple with Clancy Brown hamming it up in fine fashion (apparently Emilio Estevez was unavailable – now that would have been quite the turn after seminal ‘80s classic The Breakfast Club).

Jim Caviezel is serviceable in his role as the head coach, though for the first half hour it’s easy to confuse him with being the latest Terminator to come off the assembly line. It’s not until he burns some beef patties on the grill at home that he cracks a smile. The actor, best known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, isn’t overly assertive as Bob Ladouceur, but that may be all on account of the real coach’s personality. Where one might want Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday we get a Sunday school teacher instead. Michael Chiklis, years removed from being one of TV’s best antiheroes pre-Walter White as Vic Mackey in The Shield, is a scene-stealer with crack-wise jokes that is the yin to Caviezel’s expressionless yang. Sadly, Laura Dern has the thankless supporting role as “coach’s wife.” Oh, she has a name but sometimes it’s just easier to go with the label.

Thomas Carter’s docudrama of the De La Salle Spartans tries for inspiration, and in a few scenes is moderately successful (like when the team visits a VA hospital after losing a second consecutive game), but when the end credits start and vintage footage of the Spartans is shown, with John Madden among those speaking of what coach Ladouceur has accomplished, I got the feeling that instead of being a mediocre sports drama When the Game Stands Tall would have been a terrific documentary, even if it was limited to the small screen on that four-letter network, ESPN.

Director: Thomas Carter
Screenplay: Scott Marshall Smith, based on the book by Neil Hayes
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig, Matthew Daddario, Clancy Brown
Running time: 115 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG