How does a football team win 151 consecutive games? In the faith-based When the Game Stands Tall, the answer is a direct line to head coach Bob Ladouceur and his emphasis on commitment, accountability and being there for the guy who lines up next to you. High school football is an ennobling rite of passage in this based-on-true-events story of a challenging season for the De La Salle Spartans and their revered head coach. The ennobling part comes from the way Coach Lad teaches the game and expects it to be played. This guts-and-glory look at its subject and sport will likely connect with the high school football players and their coaches for whom the game means so much. Naturally, its theatrical release has been timed to coincide with the start of prep football season.
The movie begins in December 2003, with De La Salle, a Roman Catholic school in Concord, Calif., riding high after earning its 12th straight championship. And the Spartans don't just win the big games. Their victories have come as part of a winning streak that more than doubled the previous record. Ladouceur downplays The Streak in interviews, but its mythic pull has grown to proportions beyond his control.
One of the negative ramifications of that streak is depicted in a scene that shows coaches from rival schools lamenting De La Salle's dominance and accusing it of cheating by cherry-picking players who are well beyond the zones of its public-school counterparts. Ladouceur responds with the equivalent of "you're just jealous," but he's soon trying to right his ship after the Spartans drop the first two games of the following season against better competition than they're used to.
From the outset, director Thomas Carter focuses on high school football as the conduit that shuttles teens from adolescence into virtuous manhood. Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line, Escape Plan) plays Ladouceur as a too-quiet, nearly expressionless head coach. His taciturn performance is intended to capture Ladouceur's sense of perspective as well as an intensity of focus. "We don't expect a perfect game," Coach Lad tells his team. "But we expect a perfect effort." Ladouceur espouses brotherhood, faith, selflessness and other positive-sounding values that emphasize the idea that, for whatever knowledge he has with X's and O's, he's first and foremost a teacher of men. But the portrayal is also boring and opaque, and doesn't get at whatever inspires Coach Lad's players to work so hard for him. In a small supporting role, Michael Chiklis (The Shield, Fantastic Four) gets to be much more animated and interesting as Ladouceur's right-hand man and assistant coach.
As the movie tells it, Ladouceur doesn't merely coach football — he dispenses life lessons that his players have internalized on the way to becoming model citizens. During team gatherings, they individually stand up and pledge their commitment to one another. These exchanges are influenced by a coach for whom winning is the result of living by the right values. Be there for your fellow man and the victories will follow.
With the team reeling from having lost two games to start its new season, Ladouceur takes his players to visit a VA hospital to get that whiff of triumph over adversity. There, they see and assist physically handicapped veterans working to improve themselves. That the team starts winning again is no surprise. That the film can't be bothered with showing us how they got back on track is a disappointment.
To bring us closer to the once-invincible team, When the Game Stands Tall offers a few glimpses at a handful of players — the one with the manipulative, overbearing dad; a player struggling to keep his family life together. But nearly every subplot has been chosen for the purpose of advancing Ladouceur's worldview, so that moments of dramatic interest get reduced to cliche. Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, Citizen Ruth) has a few scenes as Beverly Ladouceur, the devoted wife who sticks by her husband even though he's all but ignored her and their kids for the past 10 years while racking up wins. A scene on the family patio where she expresses her frustration is one of the movie's most poignant and honest, and it's too bad the filmmakers didn't explore it further.
When the Game Stands Tall, which is based on the book by sportswriter Neil Hayes, wants us to admire Ladouceur, but it fails to make him an interesting person. Whatever Hayes may have captured about Coach Lad and the secret to his success and influence, it doesn't come through in this inert on-screen adaptation.
2.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Thomas Carter. Starring Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, and Alexander Ludwig. Now playing.