When the Game Stands Tall (Carter, 2014)

When the Game Stands Tall (★★½) is an efficient, if somewhat inconsequential, sports melodrama. I enjoyed it, but then I am the kind of viewer who can watch the last ten minutes of Vision Quest every time it’s on television and still mist up when Louden steps on the mat for the last time.

Actually, the ability or desire to re-watch isolated scenes is a pretty good acid test for whether a sports film is an effective narrative or simply its own highlight reel. One could fairly easily come into the middle or the end of this story about what happens when a 151 game high-school football winning streak is snapped and know exactly what is going on. By contrast, many of the scenes in The Blind Side or The Natural depend for their drama on — or at least have their drama enhanced by — scenes earlier in the film that place the sporting contest in a context that makes you care about the people as much as the result of the athletic contest.

When the Game Stands Tall gestures in that direction, but it seems curiously skittish about developing any one of the themes more than any other. When Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) has a heart attack, he chastises himself as a phony for preaching commitment to his team but neglecting his own family. Yet once he is cleared by his doctor to resume coaching duties he is shipped back to the sidelines with an affirming but somewhat incoherent speech from his wife (Laura Dern) about how it is time to let him go. In an early scene, opposing coaches complain that the Catholic High School has an unfair recruiting advantage over public schools. The coach, and the film, sidesteps that issue by affirming they don’t offer scholarships and saying that excellent programs make young men want to play in them. That may be true, but it skirts the question of why those young men have that choice in some instances and not in others.

Perhaps most importantly, the coach leads the team in a Bible lesson outlining a belief in providential (or karmic) theology, insinuating that the results on the field may be a metric of how one has lived in other areas of his life. That theological (and cultural) interpretation of events is challenged by one of his players, and while the discussion that ensues is more nuanced than I am used to seeing in most “Christian” movies, the counter-argument is ultimately dismissed rather than ever meaningfully rebutted. At other times the coach cautions his players not to define themselves by a score and insists that “it’s only [a high-school football] game,” making it less than clear (to me) what is being hinted at in the film’s Bible lesson.

That said, even though the whole is less than the sum of the parts, the parts are often thoughtful and effective. Director Thomas Carter will always be Hayward from The White Shadow to me, and his film(s) share with that show an ability to diffuse the traditional protagonist focus of narrative drama onto an ensemble cast. I mean that in a positive way. One very much feels the dynamic of a group of people who live and work together and who can love one another without always liking each other in the present moment.

The most interesting aspect of the film, for me, was the connection the coaches drew between the team’s success and the young men’s willingness to feel and share emotions. For all of the rightful emphasis placed on the way contemporary society pressures and damages young women by placing ridiculous and unhealthy expectations on them, we may be even more uncomfortable looking at how cultural stereotypes can hurt boys trying to become men. I would argue that the number of times one male says “I love you” to another male (or group of men) in this film is pretty culturally subversive. A scene in which a player kisses a photo of another male is also a touching–and slightly more subtle–reminder of how the ability to express oneself emotionally is a necessity if one is going to develop into a healthy adult able to grow from (rather than simply withstand) life’s most painful experiences.

6 Replies to “When the Game Stands Tall (Carter, 2014)”

  1. M Didaskalos

    Gotta love the haughty disdain that pervades so many critics’ reviews of When The Game Stands Tall. On the exalted-arbiter-of-movies website, RottenTomatoes, a scant 18 percent of critics nod approval to WTGST. Seventy-seven percent of audience reviews (almost 10,000 vs. the 56 critics’ reviews) are approving. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/when_the_game_stands_tall/

    When ordinary (especially Christian ordinary) people do noble things, mundane as their words and acts often are in real life, critics fairly elbow each other out of the way to dismiss another box-office success and family favorite as “platitudinous,” “threadbare,” “cliched” or [fill in your own pejorative adjective here].

    The real-life coaches whose lives are portrayed in the film seem not to be displeased with WTGST:

    “. . .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.”


    Love, humility, self-effacement, altruism? Well, no wonder so many RottenTomatoes critics are harrumphing at the movie.

    • kenmorefield

      I’m always happy for comments on my reviews, even if the commentator disagrees with my assessment.

      I do confess that I am puzzled by how to read your comment and why it was posted here. It seems in general to be dismissive towards critics, especially RottenTomatoes critics (of which I am one), while not really identifying any points of disagreement with my review. I gave the film 2 1/2 stars, which according to my rubric means a mix of good and bad. I said the parts were often “thoughtful and effective.” Is that haughty disdain? Or were you just using the comments section to vent in general about your frustration that many critics liked/appreciated the film less than I did?

      • M Didaskalos

        Sorry, Mr. Morefield, I didn’t take any umbrage at, or disagree with, your review, which I thought was very even-handed. I was venting generally about critics who tend to sniff at movies that aren’t “edgy” or sufficiently message-laden.

        As I was venting then, I’m venting to you now about one of your fellow reviewers. I originally tried to post essentially this same reply [above] on the site of a Patheos reviewer who didn’t much care for WTGST. He didn’t allow it to be printed (that was a first for me, not immediately seeing one of my relatively few posts immediately posted online), but he picked parts, but not all, of my response to answer publicly today.

        In case my response to him doesn’t get approved again, here’s my complaint to him and to any critics who do not allow respondents’ posts to be published in their entirety:

        “One question: Why did you censor (i.e., not print) my entire review, which I posted — or tried to post — at the bottom of your review of WTGST? Even in your reply here, you haven’t addressed all the salient posts in my criticism of critics who tend to love “edgy,” message-laden fare and often fawn over R-rated movies. I get the impression from your review that there weren’t enough “A River Runs Through it” and “Free Willy” indictments of, in this case, sports and all of its attendant pernicious effects on the societal fabric.

        “Only once — in my answer to your WTGST review — have I ever not seen one of my relatively few posts not posted in its entirety online. On your site, I found myself looking at “Hold on, this is waiting to be approved by Looking Closer.” And it was never approved. Well, hope springs eternal. Here’s the whole post, again, below this paragraph. Would you be honest enough to let the readers judge it in its entirety this time? They’re certainly free to agree with you and disagree with me. I’d just appreciate it if you’d summon up the courage to let them read my whole critique, as they’ve had a chance to read your whole review of WTGST. Will you give me a sporting chance?”

        • kenmorefield

          Thanks for the reply. I can’t speak to other critics’ comment policies, though I can say the move towards moderating comments–or doing away with them all together (as Christianity Today has done on their movie reviews)–is increasingly common.

          Incidentally, while you probably already know this, it’s worth stressing that Rotten Tomatoes, while useful for gauging critical consensus, does not distinguish in its scores between rave reviews (5/5; 10/10) and mildly positive ones, nor between mildly negative and complete pans. Metacritic has the film at 41, reflecting 3 positive, six negative and 15 “mixed” reviews. So I think it is accurate to say that viewers like and esteem the film more than do critics, but the degree of that difference is perhaps not quite as great as the RT score would indicate.

          • M Didaskalos

            Thanks for the helpful clarifications. I’m encouraged that all RottenTomatoes negative reviews of WTGST aren’t necessarily full-throated pans.

            Speaking of critics’ commenting policies, I tried mightily, but my plea to let readers view my whole post (above on your site) didn’t make the cut . . . again . . . at the “Looking Closer” blog, where the blogger’s commenting policy is manifestly “Comments welcome . . . as long as they’re rhapsodic paeans to the reviewer.”

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