TMN Movie Review: "When the Game Stands Tall"

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

Rating: PG
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: August 22, 2014
Directed by: Thomas Carter
Genre: Drama / Sport

The sports movie has long been in its own filmic genre. Like any genre, there are also many different types of sports movies, including intense character studies of historic sports figures, lighthearted comedies about fictional teams and inspirational true stories about underdog players and teams rising to unexpected glory.

Unsurprisingly, the true inspirational sports movie has proven very popular and generally effective, from "Cool Runnings" to "Rudy" to "Cinderella Man." Whether on a bobsled course or in a boxing ring, movie audiences love seeing characters overcome challenges in the tangible way which only sports can provide. "When the Game Stands Tall" fits squarely into this profile, using a recent story in the beloved sport of football. Specifically, the story of legendary high school coach Bob Ladouceur and the Spartans, the real-life De La Salle High School football team in California. With the events involved, this film could have easily slipped into an autopilot of sports movie clichés. Instead, "When the Game Stands Tall" builds a original and genuinely moving story from very powerful material.

At one time the Spartans were just one of many high school football teams, and Bob Ladouceur was just another high school football coach. However, under Ladouceur's guidance, the once unassuming team began winning games — many games in a row, in fact — and just did not stop winning. This streak went from 1992 all the way to 2004, with 151 wins in total. This record-breaking streak became the stuff of legends, but it is what happened afterwards that gives "When the Game Stands Tall" the crux of its story.

Ladcoucer and the Spartans had a very impressive run even after the initial streak ended on September 4, 2004. However, that defeat was no mere stumble after 12 years of winning. The legendary coach suffers some serious health problems, and a tragedy strikes a De La Salle High School student which reverberates throughout its home of Concord, California. These dramatic events are paired with the inherent drama of high school football. However, as this movie shows, despite how the teenagers and adults involved may sometimes feel, there is more to life than high school football.

On the other hand, for sports fans and the athletes they revere, football can take an important and occasionally all-encompassing part in life. Just how much of life that football or any sport can consume is another concern of "When the Game Stands Tall," just as it was to Bob Ladouceur. As "Friday Night Lights" fans know, high school football is often a very serious world.

When a team does as well as the Spartans, it attracts nationwide attention. In 2003, two books about Ladouceur and the Spartans were published. While this degree of fame put some pressure on the coach, the more immediate pressures of coaching conceited teenagers and dealing with overzealous Concord residents also took its toll.

All of these elements work towards "When the Game Stands Tall" being a movie about sports in the best sense. While a film focusing solely on football can be great, a film like this, which examines not only the sport involved but also the human story surrounding it, has a much broader appeal.

"When the Game Stands Tall" is actually based on one of those 2003 books. However, screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith had the added perspective of time to craft a poignant and mature cinematic screenplay from the larger story. Director Thomas Carter has experience with high school sports movies, as he was the director of the 2005 release "Coach Carter." For "When the Game Stands Tall," the director demonstrates a clear understanding of what makes both sports and human drama work on screen. Even those with no interest in football are likely to be riveted throughout.

Physically, Jim Caviezel fits the role of Bob Ladouceur well. More importantly, he effectively brings across the different sides of the coach that come through at different times throughout the wide-reaching story, helping to create a three-dimensional portrayal of a real person. However, it is Laura Dern who lights up every scene as Ladcouceur's wife Bev. Dern has always been charismatic, but her bold screen presence seems to be growing with every role.

Moviegoers can always expect a stream of sports movies at the multiplexes each year. Even with talented casts and directors, these efforts are often only truly entertaining to fans of the sport involved. However, "When the Game Stands Tall" is a sports movie which transcends that barrier to wider appeal. This is thanks to the movie's inclusive human interest themes, as well as solid direction and well-cast actors.