Inspired by true events, “When The Game Stands Tall” is the story of the De La Salle High School (Concord, Calif.) football team posting the longest winning streak in football history. The film neatly illustrates the De La Salle Spartans 12-year rule on the gridiron and how “the streak” ending comes almost as shocking to the world as a Harlem Globetrotter loss in basketball. The problems the coaches, players and community have in confronting their rare defeat and moving on in life gave the film so much potential. Unfortunately, the remarkable real-life story that helped propel De La Salle to triumph once again on and off of the football field fails to inspire film-goers the same way on the big-screen.
Thomas Carter, who brought us the stirring “Coach Carter” movie starring Samuel L. Jackson in 2005, directs the film. Jackson’s Coach Ken Carter character brilliantly turned around his underachieving high school basketball team from worst-to-first using stern practices and tough love. In “When The Game Stands Tall”, De La Salle football coach Bob Ladouceur (played by Jim Caviezel) also stresses personal responsibility, focusing on each player’s future after football. But Caviezel (from CBS’ “Person of Interest” and the 2004 film “Passion of the Christ”) doesn’t provide any spark or connect with audiences like Samuel L. Jackson’s demeanor did on the hardwood floor.
Caviezel’s monotone locker room and pre-game speeches, combined with blank stares over the practice field and fruitless discussions with his wife about a job at Stanford, all lack emotional fireworks. As an absent father, Ladouceur gets respected by his son more for his X’s and O’s strategy than any investment to the family dynamics. Denzel Washington’s memorable portrayal of the even-keeled coach Herman Boone in “Remember the Titans” (2000) used very effective outbursts and flashes of raw emotion to bring the story and Boone’s character alive both on the field and at home. Director Carter played it too safe with Caviezel’s coaching character in this film, stiff-arming the marriage and co-parenting aspects of Ladouceur’s life—both of which could have offered Caviezel a chance to make us want to stand up and cheer not only the successful coach, but also the honorable man.
“When The Game Stands Tall” had a playbook full of established and proven storylines to call upon; faith-based teachings and mentorship, unexpected adversity for a close knit community, successful inner-city kids earning a life-changing opportunity at college, and a coach — with job security for life — weighing lucrative offers to teach elsewhere. Together, these themes should have made “When The Game Stands Tall” the perfect feel-good movie heading into football season.
Perhaps sports films about already successful teams attempting to stay on top are less enjoyable to watch than a group of underdogs making their quest to be the best. Regardless, “When The Game Stands Tall” fumbled in its emotional connection to viewers as a result of the inexpressive, monotone delivery by Caviezel’s coach “Lad”. And that turnover cost movie-goers the chance to be as inspired by the De La Salle’s coaching staff as the players were back in 2004.