So if most sports movies are about underdogs, how do you make a film about a football team that goes on a 150-game winning streak? “When the Game Stands Tall” focuses on what happens when the streak ends.
“When the Game Stands Tall” is based on the true story of the De La Salle Spartans, a high school football team out of California that set a massive winning streak record through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. The film picks up at the end of the 2003 season, as the winning streak passes 150 games and the Spartans’ senior class passes the torch to the next generation.
While many of the players move on, their legendary coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) stays on staff. This is a great relief to his starting wide receiver and son Danny (Matthew Daddario), as well as running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), who has set his sights on the state touchdown record.
Coach Ladouceur has built his program on fundamentals and character instead of focusing on winning streaks. But as the team gets ready for its ’04 campaign, it begins to show cracks in the coach’s foundation.
There are also peripheral concerns. Coach Ladouceur is getting regular recruitment pitches from major colleges. Former players are facing challenges as they prepare for college and struggle to leave their old lives behind. And the coach himself is dealing with the aftermath of a heart attack that threatens his position on the sidelines while his wife, Bev (Laura Dern), is strained due to his alienation from his family duties.
All of this comes to a head in the team’s first game, a loss that puts the first blemish on the school’s record in more than a decade. But as the film moves forward, it becomes clear that winning football games is only part of the adversity that “When the Game Stands Tall” intends to address.
There are plenty of nice moments to go around through the film’s hour and 55 minute running time. But at the same time, there’s a sense that “When the Game Stands Tall” is spread a bit too thin. Certain plot lines come and go, sometimes without resolution; big “chill” moments arrive with a fanfare you’re not sure they’ve earned; and you begin to feel like you’re seeing the highlight reel for a much longer movie.
The film also has a bad habit of using dialogue to tell us why something is important instead of showing us the same thing. “When the Game Stands Tall” deserves credit for the positive message it is trying to give its audience, but its determination to communicate the ideals of teamwork and character sometimes overrides its artistic sensibilities. Having the characters tell us the moral makes the message clear, but showing that message through action would have left a deeper impression.
Like 2004’s “Friday Night Lights,” which was also based on a true story, “When the Game Stands Tall” wisely puts its focus on the characters inside the football pads rather than getting carried away with the games themselves. But Peter Berg’s direction of “Friday Night Lights” put a distinctive style on a sharp story, where Thomas Carter hasn’t quite brought “When the Game Stands Tall” into focus.
None of these flaws are critical wounds to the film’s overall feel, which, aside from some annoying product placement by way of the fine people at Dick’s Sporting Goods, comes across as sincere. But the flaws will be enough to keep “When the Game Stands Tall” from rising to the upper level of inspiring sports movies.
“When the Game Stands Tall” is rated PG for some violent content, including some on-field action that would make the sound effects from the “Rocky” films feel conservative.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.