Have you ever really listened to the tackles in football movies? It’s like the players are made of the same material as cheap water bottles.
“When the Game Stands Tall” is based on the true story of a high school football team who won more games in a row than any other team in history, and the difficult season that tested them both as players and as men. It stars Jim Caviezel as the coach that is trying to not only teach the ins and outs of a wishbone defense, but the ins and outs of a well lived life. Of course when you have Jesus himself calling the plays it’s easy to see why they racked up so many wins. Seriously though, this is obviously a movie thats puts a lot of attention on it’s message, which often times means a little less attention on it’s quality. So how is the balance here? Well, It’s kinda hit and miss. In fact, I’m rarely this conflicted on a movie. Maybe it’s just the growing pains of the “faith based film” genre, but I found myself applauding the movie’s skill one second and then rolling my eyes as it fell back into cliche and cloy the next. It’s as if these filmmakers are trying to find the balance themselves, like a toddler learning to walk, taking a few solid steps before seat planting and then trying to get up and walk again.
I mean there are some things I really liked about the movie. First the football scenes are choreographed and executed very well. I never found myself questioning the reality of those contests. Aside from the fact that every time someone got tackled it sounded like every bone in their body snapped, but other than that it felt like real high school football. Of course, much of that has to do with some pretty decent acting by these kids who handled some pretty intense subject matter fairly well. It’s also nice to see Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern putting in some wonderful work here alongside Coach Caviezel, whose understated performance needed that little spicing up on the sides. But the best thing for me about this movie is that it didn’t suffer from the bowtie syndrome that many in this genre do. When you tie up every problem with a pretty little bow you short circuit the reality of life, and here we are allowed to hear hard questions and maybe not even get all the answers. The result is felt in what I considered to be a beautiful finale, where the truth of the sentiment feels legitimate and not just another trite conclusion.
If only the rest of the movie had been so consistent. First, and probably worst, this movie is just structured poorly. Adapting a true story can be tricky, and there is a reason movie makers change things and combine multiple characters and events together… to tell a better story. There is so much going on here that we aren’t often sure what the primary message, story conflict, and ultimately resolution should be. It results in a movie that is too long, feels too loose, and has two or three false endings. Plus there are still those occasional “Christian” cliche moments, undercut by over the top maudlin music, as if to say, “pay attention theater goers, here’s where the important stuff is!”. Look, put the story work in first, and if the truth of the message is there it will shine through on it’s own. Truth has a way of doing that.
Overall, “When the Game Stands Tall” is likely another message movie that will mostly appeal to the crews in the pews, more than the fans in the stands. Even though the game plan lacked some focus in it’s execution, I still felt like the acting and willingness to ask some hard questions allows it to dive across the line with a hard fought B-