On its pigskin surface, When the Game Stands Tall looks every bit like most inspirational sports movies from Hollywood. Despite being based on a true story, it is generic and predicable and pleasing to fans of the game, but not necessarily to fans of true cinema.
But, under that “Let’s win one for the Gipper!” surface, Thomas Carter’s American high school football drama actually touches on profound human issues that run deeper and are far more emotional than fan reactions to an astonishing 151-game winning streak or the record-setting accomplishments of any one ego-driven player.
This is where When the Game Stands Tall actually does stand taller than most. Obviously not to the heights of Hoosiers, Raging Bull, Rocky or even Rudy, but it can share the trophy case with The Blind Side and A League of Their Own.
When the Game Stands Tall is based on the story of now-retired, American high school football coach Bob Ladouceur, who took the De La Salle High School team of Concord, Calif., through its 151-game streak and into the record books from 1992 through 2003. But more than placing an emphasis on winning, Ladouceur spent decades preaching his own gospel: Love thy fellow player, be a responsible part of the team and learn to be a better human being than you are an athlete.
For Ladouceur, the winning streak was a bonus on top of the life lessons he layered into his coaching. As played so skillfully and lovingly by Jim Caviezel — in one of the finest and most moving performances of his career — this coach is a man worthy of real respect and not just fan loyalty.
That means we all win by watching When the Game Stands Tall. I do not want to oversell it, but it has the worthy attributes that are communicated so clearly by Caviezel, as well as by support players Laura Dern as the patient wife, Michael Chiklis as the long-time assistant coach Terry Eidson and a clutch of strong young actors playing the various players on the De La Salle teams depicted. Stephan James is notable as the story’s tragic figure, young football star T.K. Kelly.
Director Carter made the movie in workmanlike fashion, working from a script by Scott Marshall Smith, who in turn adapted the 2003 book by Neil Hayes. Carter is known for another inspirational sports movie, the basketball-themed Coach Carter, starring Samuel L. Jackson in the title role. Director Carter is also a former actor with a sports credit, having played brainy hoops star Hollywood Hayward on the TV series The White Shadow 35 years ago. So he is familiar with the genre.
But sports movies are tricky. Fail in the action scenes — including on the gridiron in the case of When the Game Stands Tall — and the drama will fall flat because the movie will look fake. Remember Keanu Reeves as a quarterback in The Replacements? Ugh! You lose. But the football sequences look legitimate, at least to my eyes, in When the Game Stands Tall. So, when Carter tells the human side of Bob Ladouceur’s story, including showing the coach’s flaws as a human being, the story rings true.