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Movie Review - "When The Game Stands Tall"

At a time when the game of American Football seems daily under attack comes a movie that celebrates the sport’s best qualities. Perhaps it is to be expected that such a film chooses to focus on the sport as it is played at the high school level, and a Catholic high school at that. And that the main character is a football coach who also teaches religion.

“When The Game Stands Tall” is a movie about high school football, a coming-of-age story, and the story of a great coach. This film was released in August of 2014 and is not yet available on streaming services.

The film is based on the book by Neil Hayes with a screenplay by Scott Marshall Smith and David Zelon. The story follows the legendary football coach Bob Ladouceur of De La Salle High School in Concord, California. Coach Ladouceur led his team to a winning streak of 151 games, the longest winning streak of any American team in any sport. Along the way, Coach Ladouceur, his team, and his family encounter many challenges which mirror those of the society of which they are a part: challenges of race, poverty, crime, and health. The team also faces strong competition from other West Coast high schools.

Jim Caviezel stars as Coach Ladouceur, Laura Dern plays the part of his wife, and Michael Chiklis is the assistant coach who takes over when Ladouceur is unable to continue coaching. Most of the actors are relatively young and unknown, playing the parts of members of the football team.

In the role of Coach Ladouceur, Jim Caviezel carries the film from start to finish. His performance is mesmerizing and at the same time understated. Unlike the archetypal screaming coach of many a sports movie, often modelled on the equally archetypal drill instructors of military films, Caviezel’s coach is the calm at the eye of the storm. He portrays  the virtuous and considerate man he would like to see his players become. Yet he demonstrates a ferocious level of intensity during both good times and bad. Anyone about to take up a coaching position could hardly do better than to adopt the persona of this legendary coach.

As a film which celebrates and glorifies a particular sport, “When The Game Stands Tall” is filled with spectacular footage of game play. It also depicts the hard physical work and emotional discipline which lie behind the development of football talent. The young people playing the sport are highly motivated to begin with, so the coach’s task is not so much to inspire them as to channel their talent and energy in ways that will help them work together as a team whose members can complement and support one another. This is a film for sports fans -- not only football fans but fans of all team sports -- as well as viewers curious about what it takes to provide great coaching leadership.

During my time as a reviewer for Nantucket Chronicle, I have written about another football movie, “Draft Day,” starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner. In many ways these two football films lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. “When The Game Stands Tall” illustrates how the sport can contribute to the development of personality and character among young people, while “Draft Day” concerns itself primarily with the business of building and maintaining a professional sports franchise. Taken together, the two films demonstrate why  football has become one of our national sports. Neither film takes much time to explore the many threats to the game’s longevity, from brain injuries incurred on the field to bad behavior off the field by the game’s players, coaches, and owners. While that film has yet to be made, doubtless somewhere creative minds are thinking about it.

Recently a New Hampshire school board member who is also a physician recommended that his school district discontinue the sport of football. We can drop football voluntarily, he advised, or we can wait until our insurance carrier forces us to do it. The issue of brain injuries in young athletes is not the exclusive province of football; soccer players also experience concussions that can lead to brain injuries. When the question of whether to drop football comes before local school boards, as it is almost certain do, “When The Game Stands Tall” will be introduced as evidence.