When the Game Stands Tall

When the Game Stands Tall looks like it’s going to be another inspirational sports movie. Go watch the trailer. I’ll wait. It’s cut from the same cloth as basically any other inspirational sports movie you’ll have either seen or heard of in your life. When you watch the film — and you shouldn’t — you’ll find out that, no, there’s really not much inspiring going on. Almost as importantly, about an hour of the film’s near-unbearable running time is spent doing absolutely nothing whatsoever involving football.

The lead is Jim Caviezel, who plays the head coach of a football team. A high school football team. A Christian high school football team. He has his players hold hands as they run out onto the field and tells them that love will conquer all. No, really. As the film begins, his team has won 151 straight games, which is a pretty impressive record. It took over a decade for that to be achieved. Okay, so his methods work. His team wins another championship, and we head into the off-season looking up.

And then the “drama” begins. Some players — and former players — deal with troubles, our coach almost dies after smoking a single cigarette (this movie might have the most immediate effects of smoking ever), there’s a death, and it’s all preparing us to see our football team lose its opening game next season. The problem is all of this takes about an hour and none of it really has any impact whatsoever in the long run. The coach’s health problems don’t matter, former players don’t show up until the last few scenes — to ramp up the “emotion” of the moment — and it’s basically impossible to care about any of it.

I posited, for a second, that perhaps the problem was with me. That, not being from America, a high school football movie just wasn’t going to click regardless of how good it was. High school football is basically only a big deal in America, and if you’re not from there, you won’t “get” it. But then I sat back and realized the high school aspect didn’t really matter. You could make all the characters into college athletes and it wouldn’t make a difference. Most of them look old enough anyway. The problem runs deeper than that.

It’s a screenplay problem. Characters and subplots are introduced and dropped with a snap of the fingers. It’s a directional problem. The focus can’t be kept on anything, and there’s at least one scene of a major tonal problem. The athletes go visit war veterans trying to rehab their injuries, and then … it’s all played for laughs. No, really, the whole scene is supposed to be funny. And it’s not.

It’s an acting problem. Maybe the coach really is just the least passionate guy in the world, but as played by Jim Caviezel, he’s a monotonous bore. Laura Dern plays his wife and she’s about as exciting. Michael Chiklis plays the assistant coach, and at least he brings some energy to the equation. None of the athletes are any good in the few scenes that require them to be. The only “name” actor playing a high school student is Alexander Ludwig, and he’s not good, either.

When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t accomplish its goal of being inspirational, either. Since the film is based on a true story, I don’t fear spoiling the team’s record. It wins 151 straight games. It loses two straight games to open the next season, after having many of its players graduate. And then it wins and wins some more. That’s our movie, folks. A really good team loses two games and everyone panics like the world’s ending — and they get back on track by laughing at war veterans, believing in each other, and holding hands.

Maybe the issue is that it’s based on a true story and therefore has to try to manufacture drama when there is none. It’s possible that When the Game Stands Tall‘s story isn’t one worth telling, or at least not filming. A book was released in 2003, which is what the movie is based on, detailing the events that have been told here. I don’t encourage you to read it, as if the film is a truthful adaptation then it will also be awful. Maybe it’s better — source material often is — but is that really a risk you want to take?

If there’s one thing that works, it’s the football scenes. The last football game involves our “underdogs” going against a larger team in extreme heat, and as its own short film, this works much better than the rest of the movie. The football parts seem pretty realistic, and they’re genuinely exciting. It’s like watching a wonderful highlight reel, mixed with views from the dressing room and sideline. About the last 20 minutes of When the Game Stands Tall work well. But only on their own.

Bad acting, bad screenplay, bad direction. When the Game Stands Tall is a bad movie through and through. It adds and drops characters randomly, is inconsistent and all over the map, and isn’t even particularly inspirational, even though that’s its whole job. The acting is poor and the plot is stupid — even though it’s based on a real story. Some things shouldn’t be made into films. You have to manufacture drama that isn’t there, and that’s what happened with When the Game Stands Tall.

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