Contrary to what the bright stadium lights and flashes of pigskin would indicate, When the Game Stands Tall is not a movie about football. Yes, the film is centered on a team of gridiron giants, the De La Salle Spartans, and the coach that led them on a remarkable 151 game winning streak. But as protagonist Bob Ladouceur makes clear early and often in the film, When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t care about a scoreboard. “Getting these wins is nothing. Teaching these boys there’s more to life is hard,” he tells a reporter during the prologue, as he marches his team onto the field for win number 151, which crowns their 2003 season with a championship.
But, come on: no sports movie is really just about the sport, right? The game is just a metaphor for overcoming adversity, the triumph of the human spirit, etc., etc. Thing is, When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t even bother with trying to hide the subtext of its story under a jersey; it’s interested in people learning to win at life, not their game. At first, this seems a novel idea to match the challenge of making a sports movie where you’re rooting for a team recovering from lost glory, instead of trying to earn it in the first place. Unfortunately, When the Game Stands Tall is still written like every other high school sports drama you’ve ever seen, so the characters and stories it devotes so much time to never rise above the pat clichés of the genre.
Jim Caviezel stars as Coach Ladouceur, the odd-man-out in the roster of sports stereotypes that When the Game Stands Tall otherwise stacks its roster with. Unlike other coaches, Ladouceur cares more for the social growth of his players than their win-loss ratio. Where others might want their players to focus strictly on the game at hand, Ladouceur goes out of his way to foster their emotional development, leading post-game meetings like they were therapy sessions. Despite delivering every line with the curt severity of a threat, Caviezel is convincing as a man who is willing to sacrifice job opportunities, time with his family, and his health for the benefit of the students under his tutelage.
Put simply, Ladouceur is Christlike, a comparison you could easily make having no knowledge of Caviezel’s most famous role. What’s not been so directly conveyed by marketing for When the Game Stands Tall is the place of faith it’s coming from. De La Salle is a Catholic private school, and as such, Ladouceur’s spirituality and the school’s are a major contributing factor to this story. Where other sports movies will let you look for the religious angles between the lines, When the Game Stands Tall chooses not to mince words.
It’s commendable that When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t try to hide the worldview it’s coming from, but it’s one that turns a mere hagiography of Ladouceur into an application for sainthood. Over and over, Ladouceur’s belief in prioritizing the team over the individual is presented as the film’s deal, yet Ladouceur himself is laboriously built up to be the guiding hand responsible for the team’s destiny. The near hour-long gap between the opening game and the one that breaks the team’s streak is spent humbling Ladouceur and his team through a series of misfortunes, yet he’s always at the wheel for whatever successes or failures the players have to face.
The unusual narrative arc of The Spartans’ fall and resurrection creates a structural imbalance to Scott Marshall Smith’s script, which is mostly episodic. Individual character arcs for the players are either squarely in the foreground, or disappear entirely. From the opening action, in which commentators and crowd members read off exposition like they were calling a play, you know the exact trajectory of each character’s story, whether they’re the golden boy with a domineering father, or the college-bound linebacker from a bad part of town. Some of this is true to real life events, and some is just comfort food character work, but it’s all slathered in the same saccharine dialogue from Smith that’s usually half-inspirational-Nike-ad, half-sermon.
Thomas Carter’s direction blitzes just as hard for the warm ‘n fuzzies, shooting with a dewy softness on the lens as though there’s always a tear in the camera’s eye. With the help of Allan Graf (who worked on the terrific Friday Night Lights), Carter does bring things to life when the film finally does return to the field. But in deemphasizing the value of its game, When the Game Stands Tall has sabotaged the drama of the football action. The finale is less about the team’s efforts than it is one player’s chance at glory, and climaxes with a Big Emotional Moment that’s a complete contradiction to the film’s overriding theme.
When the Game Stands Tall has the look of a feel-good crowd-pleaser, but its unique elements also narrow the scope of audience that will buy into the brand of uplift it’s selling. When the team’s first loss is accompanied musically by the sort of sorrowful throat singing you’d find in The Passion of the Christ, or Caviezel stares disapprovingly at bandwagon fans like they’ve just bussed in from Sodom, the film’s subtextual religious influences will be likely be too overwrought for those who don’t subscribe to them. As credit footage of the real Ladouceur and Spartans shows, there’s a true, incredible story that When the Game Stands Tall has in its hands, but it’s one that’s executed here with the thudding grace of a 300-lb running back.
The unique hooks of When the Game Stands Tall do as much to muddle its message as they do to distinguish it from the usual cliches of high school sports dramas.