Inspired by a true story about one of the longest winning streaks in sports history, it may be just a little ironic that When the Game Stands Tall is actually a film about losing or, perhaps better stated, a film about re-defining what it means to win.
Directed by Thomas Carter (Coach Carter) and penned by Scott Marshall Smith from a book by Neil Hayes, When the Game Stands Tall stars Jim Caviezel as Coach Bob LaDouceur, who took the De La Salle High School Spartans from obscurity to an astounding 151-game winning streak that shattered records and gave the school more than just a little bit of a legendary status.
Then, of course, eventually that first loss came.
When the Game Stands Tall, while occasionally contradicting its theme, is far more about what happens after that loss than the talent, hard work, and wins that came before it. The film isn't going to work for everyone, partly because of its quietly faith inspired themes and partly because it is an unashamed about its emotionally manipulative presentation that permeates every cinematic cell of the film.
As an actor, producer, and director, Thomas Carter has been around for quite awhile. His films, ranging from the similarly inspirational but sloppier Coach Carter to Save the Last Dance, Swing Kids, and the awesome television film Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, tend to tell positive and inspiring stories and this is no exception. LaDouceur, played with a softspoken quality by Caviezel that you're kind of glad he didn't bring to the screen when he played Jesus, isn't portrayed as your typical raving lunatic coach who screams and shouts and waxes eloquently. Instead, he's portrayed as a quiet man who comes to realize that the game has become more important than the people playing with it.
He decides that's not okay.
After "The Streak" ends, the inevitable fracture occurs as blame is placed at the feet of a core group of players including LaDouceur's own son (Matthew Daddario) and Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), the latter being a fictitious character and one of the examples of the ways in which When the Game Stands Tall doesn't remain faithful, at least in facts, to the real life story. Coach LaDouceur also has to overcome his own health issues, family issues, and the real life murder victim and former De La Salle stand-out Terrance Kelly.
While When the Game Stands Tall isn't a preachy film, there's no question that its driving themes are fueled by faith and that's likely why it was placed in the distribution hands of TriStar Pictures, a Sony distribution branch that has specialized in faith-inspired stories as of late. The film doesn't get off to a solid start, the fictitious Chris Ryan character gives the film a tone it doesn't need and it mainly serves to distract. While LaDouceur's conflicts with his own son are more convincing, they really also add a weird tone to the film early on that fortunately goes away and gives room for the real heart of the matter.
The film's lensing is sharp and coherent. While handheld camera work is utilized, it's not of the shaky variety and it captures the on-field action quite nicely. While it will feel far too manipulative for some, a scene inside a Veterans Administration's hospital is one of the film's best scenes and adds an emotional resonance to everything else that unfolds. While facts are occasionally played with, the Kelly scenes, for those who are aware, stick largely and respectfully to the facts.
When the Game Stands Tall is one of the better inspirational sports stories to come along in recent years, though there's also no question that its inspirational and faith angles will make those who've seen it reflect upon the far more faith-driven Facing the Giants. When the Game Stands Tall is its own film and, for those who don't mind its unabashed dedication to inspiration and heartfelt dialogue, it's a film that could very well be a great view for a parent trying to instill positive values to their athletically inclined children.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic