A scene from "When the Game Stands Tall" (courtesy Sony pictures).
Sports movies seldom deviate from the
“underdog” scenario. Many of the true-life sports stories to which Hollywood
gravitates involve the “little guys” rising to the occasion and defeating the “big
guys.” The formula speaks to the ethos of team work and perseverance that makes
any sport engrossing. However, When the
Game Stands Tall, directed by Thomas Carter (Swing Kids, Coach Carter),
opens not with a hungry underdog, but with a seemingly invincible team riding
the wave of a record-breaking winning streak. From 1992 to 2004, Coach Bob
Ladouceur led the De La Salle Spartans High School (Concord, California)
football program to an astonishing 151 consecutive victories.
Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, The Thin Red Line) stars as the legendary Ladouceur, an unorthodox coach with a
reserved demeanor and a perspective on football that extends beyond the field.
“It ain’t about scoring touchdowns,” he remarks at one point, “It’s about
moving you in a direction that can assist you and help you to grow up.” This
broader and deeper outlook contributes to the success of his players both on
and off the field.
Rousing his team toward victory in the
opening sequencea scene that could, in another sports film, easily be the
penultimate speech given immediately prior to the climactic gameLadouceur’s
philosophy quickly becomes central as a series of misfortunes befall the
Spartan program and various De La Salle players. When the team’s winning streak
comes to a grinding halt, the players and coaches are forced to build back to
their winning status, rediscovering the sense of teamwork needed to take the
Based on the 2003 book of the same name
by Contra Costa Times sportswriter Neil
Hayes, the film does indeed stand apart from other sports films, not only for
its Goliath-turned-David inversion, but for its efforts to weave in some larger
themes. Typically, football coaches do not double as religion teachers, musing
with students in the classroom about deep questions such as why bad things
happen to good people. The real-life Bob Ladouceur was well-known for his more
“philosophical” approach to coaching, and was hired at De La Salle in 1979 as a
religious studies teacher prior to heading up the Spartan football program.
In the end, the layering of the
characters’ personal hardships with the football storyline proves not only the
film’s biggest draw, but also its biggest challenge cinematically. There are
moments when what is happening with the characters doesn’t always sync with the
action on the field. As a result, we feel a little lost in the pacing of the
story. The pressures faced by the players off field could have been better
fleshed out so the synthesis of the larger themes within the traditional
sports-film narrative were a bit more organic, rather than simply an addendum.
notwithstanding, the story remains compelling; performances from the cast are
well rounded, and the gridiron action is well shot and keeps you in the moment.
While not a cinematic masterpiece, even within the sports genre, it does give a
strong testament to the power of teamwork, the need for humility, and the
importance of using the skills learned on the field to pursue a higher purpose.
And it also fittingly honors the remarkable legacy of California high school
football’s winningest coach, who retired in 2013 with an astounding career record of 39925-3.