Documentary filmmaking is all about timing. If the story is there, it’s a simple process of pressing record and editing it together. If the story isn’t there, there’s no hope for the film. Thankfully for filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, the timing couldn’t have been better when it came to making Undefeated.
What was supposed to simply be a piece on a O.C. Brown, a high school player with a Blindside-like story, developed into something with a much wider scope, and thus a much greater impact. In an age when it seems every sports story has been told and retold, it’s incredible that this film is able to provide such a meaningful emotional experience. The true reactions of the players at times are better than could be scripted, and Coach Courtney’s delivery of the news that a wealthy anonymous benefactor would be paying for one of the player’s college is more dramatic and touching than even the best screenwriter could have possibly penned.
Although the film is first and foremost a story about the players, it’s the charisma of Courtney that elevates Undefeated past the typical sports documentary. The man gives halftime speeches that are inspired enough to send the Spartan army into battle, and constantly provides eloquent and memorable quotes giving the filmmakers an array of material to work with.
Gaining the trust of anyone getting them in front of a camera to the extent needed for a documentary is tough, but to be able to secure that trust with a group of inner-city high school boys must be on a whole other level. Lindsay and Martin do an exceptional job of putting themselves in the thick of the action, in all the intimate moments needed for an effective documentary, without making the film about themselves at all, which is a rare feat in documentary filmmaking today.
Although the pacing is a bit awkward at times, especially during the actual games, it’s the moments that really matter to the audience, the team meetings and the one on one interactions between the coach and his players, where the filmmakers were spot-on. The original music from Michael Brook, Daniel McMahon and Miles Nelson also add a ton to the film, providing an energy that significantly enhances the images shown on screen.
The one glaring problem with the film is it fails to bring the controversy of Brown living with his coach to light. The fact that people questioned the motives behind Brown receiving extra help was mentioned in passing, but the filmmakers don’t make a point of exploring the possibility of any motives other than pure kindness. Perhaps it’s a case of getting too close to the subjects, but regardless of the reason, it’s a glaring hole in the story. Other than that, my complaints with the film are very few.
The fact the film is titled Undefeated shows that this isn’t a story about football (the team lost the very first game of the season), but rather it’s a story about what can happen for youth who are a part of something and surrounded by positive mentors. In this case that something just happens to be football. Undefeated shows that the age of meaningful sports stories isn’t behind us. The film was more than deserving of its Oscar, as it’s one of the best sports documentaries, and documentaries in general, released in recent years.
The picture quality is adequate for a documentary filmed in the locations it was. Many scenes are darker than would be ideal, but that’s due more to the amount of light at locations than the Blu-ray conversion. The scenes that especially suffer from low light are the shots of the actual football games. Both the sideline shots and game footage are much darker than desired.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track isn’t all that impressive, nor does it need to be for this sort of film. That being said, the football games are incredibly immersive with an excellent mix leading to a feeling of actually standing on the sidelines. The game noises come from the screen and the crowd seems to be behind you.
The special features are fairly limited. The ones included are listed below.
- Audio Commentary
- Deleted Scenes
- The Making of Undefeated
- Black & White Trailer
Nothing in the features is all that revolutionary, but they do provide a nice way to get some more footage of the film. One of the delete scenes shows the story of another player, Joaquin. They also include footage of Courtney working with a safety and another speech that Courtney gives the team.
The Making Of has interviews with Courtney, Lindsay, Martin, and producer Sean Combs. While informative about the origins of the film, it could’ve used to be about ten minutes longer.
The commentary is also informative, as filmmakers Lindsay and Martin talk about how they developed the movies’ storyline and the decision to subtitle some of the players. Unfortunately, there’s a fair amount of time where they pair run out of insightful things to say. The commentary may have been better if Courtney was added to the mix.
Undefeated is a must see documentary not only for sports fans, but for anyone who has a heart. While certainly not a revolutionary original story, the filmmakers were aware enough to capture it in the most effective way – not as a story about football, but a story about young men working to better themselves and those helping them along the way.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.
Undefeated is more than a story about football. It's a story about what perseverance and kindness can do for a community, showing that the age of meaningful sports stories is far from behind us.