Winning streaks are a big deal in football (the American sort for those not in the States). Professionally, the record is 17 games. In college, the record is 47 games. That’s chump change compared to the high school record. De La Salle High School won 151 games in a row. That’s twelve years without a loss; from 1992 to 2004. Thirteen straight championships. That’s unbelievable. When the Game Stands Tall isn’t about all the teams that went undefeated and steamrolled their competition. When the Game Stands Tall is about the team that started at game #152 and lost two in a row.
Sports matter. It’s becoming harder and harder to see that in the chest-pounding, self-glorifying culture that’s evolved around the modern professional athlete. There’s a reason parents (the normal ones, not the crazy ones like Clancy Brown plays in this film) push kids into team sports. It’s the same reason chubby old men will repeat stories of high school glory over and over. Playing on a team, if you’re coached well, builds a bond; a connection and devotion to your teammates that lasts the rest of your life.
The players at De La Salle were certainly coached well. Jim Caviezel plays coach Bob Ladouceur, who is anything but a normal football coach. There’s no bombast. There’s no shouting, cursing or throwing things. De La Salle is a Roman Catholic high school in the Oakland diocese, and the coach is more likely to quote the Bible than he is to raise his voice at all. He’s a very mild-mannered man, but he runs his team to a standard that does not waver. After his star running back breaks a run and flips into the end zone, the coach quietly pulls him aside and says, “Great run, but if I see you somersault into the end zone ever again, I’ll sit you.”
When the Game Stands Tall is not shy about incorporating the role of faith. It’s amazing how absent any statement on religion, Christian or otherwise, is from film. It doesn’t belong in a lot of movies, just like any other aspect of life may not be relevant in a given tale, but the near total absence is startling. There are plenty of focused grouped reasons why it doesn’t, but the deftness and matter-of-fact way with which it’s handled in WTHGST is a lesson that “Christian” filmmakers should take note of and perhaps spend more money on a writer who knows how to deliver a message than hiring Kirk Cameron or Nicolas Cage.
Sports movies are especially tricky, because essentially you’re watching two through-lines. You have the narrative and then you have the live action on the field. To push the former, you have to show a lot of the latter. So you end up watching a football game and a movie. The toughest parts are keeping the football game aspect as compelling as the narrative, and not staying with on-field action so long that you lose the viewer. It’s a tricky balance, and if there’s a major criticism I have with the film, it’s that it sometimes stays way too long on the field.
Overall, I found When the Game Stands Tall to be a fantastic surprise and a great rental. I say “surprise” because Rotten Tomatoes has this film at 18%. That’s Transformers-sequel level bad. How in the world anyone could give this film a 1.8 blows my mind. It makes me continue to disregard RT as a metric. I don’t know whether how they’ve collated they’re ratings has changed, or if I’ve changed as a viewer, but to me this was a solid and thoroughly engaging film.