Much of my youth was spent in Danville, California which wasn’t too far from the city of Concord where De La Salle High School is located. Anybody who knows about De La Salle knows how great their football team was is, and the odds of any other team beating them always seemed astronomical. I ended up going to Monte Vista High School where I suffered through my adolescent years, and there was a time when our junior varsity football team ended up defeating De La Salle’s by a surprisingly wide margin. Looking back, I kept wondering what the De La Salle locker room looked like after a loss like that because it could not have been pleasant. Watching “When the Game Stands Tall” gave me an idea of what it could have looked like, and while the movie does traffic in obvious sports movie clichés, it does rise above them to make one that’s better than average.
“When the Game Stands Tall” starts off with the De La Salle High School football team enjoying a record-setting 151 game winning streak that any NFL team would deeply envy. When the press asks Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) what his secret is for winning he ends up replying, “Winning a lot of football games is doable. Teaching kids there’s more to life, that’s hard.” From there we can see that Bob is not going to be the typical football coach we have seen so many times at the movies as he tries to make his players see that there’s more to life than football.
Unlike other movies which deal with underdogs fighting their way to the top, “When the Game Stands Tall” deals with a team which is at the height of their success. But soon they deal with a crushing loss, and this provided me with the closest look I will ever get into the De La Salle football locker room. It’s a painful moment as the loss weighs ever so heavily on these young men as they appear miserable beyond repair for letting the record long winning streak come to a depressing end. At that point I expected Coach Ladouceur to come in and scream at his players for losing the game, but he instead tells them that this is one of those moments they will learn the most from, and he turns a humiliating moment into a teachable one that these young men need to hear.
At first glance, Caviezel seems to be giving a stiff performance as Coach Bob Ladouceur to where you feel like putting a defibrillator on his chest. But as the movie goes on, you see that Bob is not the kind of football coach to verbalize abuse his players and speaks calmly with a lot of authority, and that made me see Caviezel’s performance in a different light. As Bob suffers some serious setbacks including a near fatal heart attack, Caviezel inhabits this character with a quiet determination to help his students become excellent football players, but also dependable human beings who can contribute much to the world.
One actor I was especially happy to see in “When the Game Stands Tall” was Michael Chiklis who plays the team’s assistant coach Terry Eidson. Chiklis has yet to give a performance that sucks, and he struts onto the screen like he has been coaching football his whole life. While he does play on some of those football movies clichés of the coach yelling on the sidelines like a maniac, he’s a perfect foil for Caviezel as both are on the same wavelength in terms of what they are really trying to do with these boys which is to teach them that there’s more to life than just football.
The movie was directed by Thomas Carter whose previous efforts include “Coach Carter,” “Swing Kids,” “Save the Last Dance” and “Metro” which I honestly believe is one of Eddie Murphy’s most underrated movies. He does a good job of capturing how these young football players take some seriously brutal hits while out on the field. One game in particular has them facing a rival football team which literally and figuratively outweighs them, and we watch as the players get submerged in ice during halftime to recover from the deep and dark bruises which have covered their bodies, and watching that scene proved to be exhausting. This was especially the case considering that they were playing in triple digit temperatures and I was watching this movie on a hot summer day.
Like I said, “When the Game Stands Tall” does traffic in the sports movie cliché department a bit. One of the most glaring examples is when running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) is being bullied by his dad Mickey (Clancy Brown) to break a particular record before the end of the season. It’s not hard to see that Mickey’s obsessiveness about Chris making it into the record books is more about what it will do for the dad than the son. I guess it would have bothered me more if it were another actor playing Mickey, but it’s always fun to watch Brown in any role he takes on these days. Besides this is the same actor from “Highlander” who once said, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away!”
There’s also a murder of one of the players near the beginning of the movie, and you can see it coming from a mile away the way Carter directs it. While this is (surprise, surprise) based on a true story, and I don’t want to take away from this tragedy as it was such a senseless loss of life, it feels like a rather mundane version of “Boyz N The Hood.” Still, it does make for some strong dramatic moments later on.
And of course, there is a bit of family drama to found, but it’s better handled than I expected and not at all cringe inducing. Part of the reason is that the actress playing Coach Ladouceur’s wife, Bev Ladouceur, is Laura Dern. She’s always a delight to watch no matter what she’s in, and she helps give her role a strong dignity which helps Bev and her family through the most emotionally trying of times. Dern also gives Bev a strong integrity to where she doesn’t have to prove to anyone what a strong person she is.
Now I’m not about to give away the ending of “When the Game Stands Tall,” but like Pixar’s “Cars” it doesn’t end in the way most other sports movies do. The climax becomes more about the team honoring the coach than just winning the big game, and I admired it a lot for that. From the start, Coach Ladouceur was much more serious about training these boys to dependable men, and what happens in the end proves just how successful he was in doing so.
“When the Game Stands Tall” will not go down as one of the best sports movies ever made or even as one of the best movies ever made about football, but it was a better than what I expected it to be when I walked into the theater. More importantly, it works to transcend certain aspects of the genre to where the story has a lot more meaning than it would in other circumstances. Plus, thanks to a terrific cast and some strong direction, this movie stays with you as you walk out of the theater.
My only other complaint is that I was hoping to see a lot of familiar Bay Area landmarks throughout, but it turns out that “When the Game Stands Tall” was actually filmed in Louisiana. Those tax credits for California film companies didn’t come soon enough!
NOTE: Some people I’ve talked to were baffled as to why portions of the Bible were being taught by Bob Ladouceur in his classroom. For the record, De La Salle High School is in actuality a private Catholic school, not your ordinary public school. The movie didn’t necessarily make that clear, but I thought I would just pass along that info.