This fact-based sports movie subverts convention to some extent by not being simply the story of an underdog team that wins the championship through true grit, but by being the story of a fallen champion that rebounds to glory via the same means. Whether that’s enough to make “When the Game Stands Tall” stand out in a crowded field is a doubtful proposition.
Jim Caviezel gives an almost preternaturally understated performance as Coach Bob Ladouceur, who took the football squad of De La Salle High School in Concord, California to what came to be known simply as The Streak, a string of 151 consecutive wins and 12 straight state championships between 1992 and 2004. But the script by Scott Marshall Smith isn’t about that. It concentrates on the team’s 2004-2005 season, which brought an end to the streak and a life-threatening heart attack to Ladouceur. In this telling, both coach and team, which included Ladouceur’s own son (Danny (Matthew Daddario), fought back successfully from their setbacks, with the Ladouceur returning to his job and the Spartans showing their tenacity in holding their own against the top-rated Long Beach Polytechnic Jackrabbits.
Smith’s script fiddles with fact for dramatic effect. It adds characters—several team members, for example—and plays havoc with chronology (the De LaSalle-Poly showdown actually occurred in 2001, during the streak, not in 2005, after it had been snapped). And apart from showing Ladouceur briefly teaching a religion class and tossing in a few references to Scriptural passages and the Lord’s Prayer, it pretty much ignores the fact that De LaSalle is a Catholic school—an unusual choice in a genre where religious affiliation is often a major plot point.
On the whole the result can be termed workmanlike rather than inspired. The script does clobber you over the head with its (and Coach Ladouceur’s) primary message—that winning isn’t as important as putting forth your best effort at all times, on and off the field, and that there is no “I” in team. At it finds numerous ways to get those ideas across. One plot thread involves senior running-back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) who’s being pressured into breaking a record by his imperious father (Clancy Brown, in an over-the-top turn). Another deals with the death of a just-graduated linebacker, Terrance T.K. Kelly (Stephan James), who was the victim of a shooting the night before his planned departure, giving the coach the chance to deliver a tearful eulogy at the boy’s funeral. A third concerns Danny, who blames his father’s absence from his office for the team’s poor play during his chance to shine. Then there are the bits about the big defensive end (Joe Massingill) who must step up against even larger opponents, and Tayshon (Jessie T. Usher), a show-boating egoist. And that’s not to mention the shrimp who’s never played until a game until everything’s on the line, or the graduate who has to step up and become a father to his younger brother when his mother passes away.
One might well argue that it wasn’t necessary to juice up the story of Ladouceur and his team with so much melodramatic fantasy in the way Smith and Carter have done; the changes and additions simply force the tale into an arc familiar from so many clichéd sports pictures of the past, though the conclusion to the culminating come-from-behind game takes a turn so totally unbelievable that it’s more likely to provoke giggles of disbelief than the intended heart-swelling. And many of the performances—like Caviezel’s secular saint, who casually tosses away offers for college coaching jobs because of his calling to build men or Brown’s Snidely Whiplash booster—are part of the same pattern. There is some compensation in engaging supporting bits by Laura Dern as Ladouceur’s ever-supportive wife and Michael Chiklis as his equally supportive but more extroverted assistant, and by the younger players, who are generally credible even though none of them evinces star potential.
Another overall plus is the game action, of which Carter offers a great deal. It appears to be reasonably realistic, at least to somebody who’s not a particular fan of the game. That’s a testimony to the expertise of Allan Graf, who served as the movie’s stunt and football coordinator, as well as its second unit director. Otherwise the work behind the camera is good without being outstanding, from Michael Lohmann’s cinematography and Jaymes Hinkle’s production design to John Paesano’s uplift-filled score.
Well-intentioned but heavy-handed, “When the Game Stands Tall” comes out in the middle of the pack in a crowded genre, somewhere between “Friday Night Lights” and “Johnny Be Good.” It wins no championship ring, but doesn’t fumble one away either, and as the fall football season begins might serve as an attractive alternative to spending an evening in the bleachers.