When the Game Stands Tall inspires but fails to tell a good story

When the Game Stands Tall Jim Caviezel Michael Chiklis

‘When the Game Stands Tall’ tries to tell the inspiring story of the De La Salle football Titans, but gets mired down in telling too many tangentially related off-the-field stories. The team overcomes many obstacles the movie was unable to avoid.


The high school level of athletics might be one of the few remaining places where one could find purity in sports. Professional sports are rife with stories of cheating, of individualism and commercialism. College – at least in the major sports – is no better; while only the smallest of percentages will play professionally, the sports there might be less pure than their professional counterparts. So there is the international level – an area that has been largely ignored in cinema history – and high schools.

From Hoosiers to Remember the Titans, the history of the high school sports film focus on that purity. Even darker stories like Friday Night Lights and – to an extent – Varsity Blues generally include a nice moral lesson; for every Charlie Tweeter there is a Billy Bob, for every Basketball Diaries there is a Coach Carter. When the Game Stands Tall lives in the shadow of the inspirational stories; it very much wants to be Titans. Unfortunately director Thomas Carter and screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith spend most of the film trying to figure out what story they want to tell.

When the Game Stands Tall follows the De La Salle High School Titans of the 151-0 winning streak fame. Jim Caviezel plays famed coach Bob Ladouceur, a man who is either an excellent shaper-of-men or average-family-man, depending on what story the flick is trying to tell at any given time. Laura Dern – who was phenomenal in an oddly similar role in The Fault In Our Stars earlier this year – almost seems to be in a different movie because of that narrative dissonance.

The movie shines on the field: the team deals with different kinds of loss: the death of a former player on the cusp of college greatness, Ladouceur’s heart attack, the graduation of entirely too much talent and the resulting end of their historic winning streak. Caviezel portrays the coach as a quiet leader who – in what seems to be a direct quote from the subject – expects not perfection, but perfect effort. That steely idealism is what shapes his team into winners, but more importantly his players into men (cue Afterschool Special outro now).

But no sports movie can live entirely on the field or court, and When the Game Stands Tall struggles mightily in telling that story – or eighty-five stories as it might be. The film takes a wild detour in the first act telling the story of two former players making the transition to adulthood. When one tragically dies, the movie then jettisons the whole arc after the funeral (save a quick appearance near the end). This is included in the movie because it is a part of what that team faced, but the flick never truly establishes its relevance in the narrative arc other than its history.

Likewise was the glimpse into the Ladouceur’s family life. The story included elements of the coach being an absentee father, but the script ignores the age-old movie tenant of “Show, Don’t Tell” and just expects us to believe this titan of a mentor just happens to be a not-good-enough father because Dern’s character mentions it in passing once or twice. We are never given any reason to believe it – hell, Dern doesn’t even seem to believe it. The only thing approaching proof is the relationship between father and son, who happens to be a player on the team. There were some awkward moments between the two, but the scenes failed to clarify their relationship as much as just confuse it.

When the Game Stands Tall wants so desperately to be the kind of movie Remember The Titans is; the shame is how the source material could easily provide for that type of story. Instead it is one good story mired in five or six bad ones. Had the creative team been more judicious in deciding what aspects of the team’s season it wanted to tell, it would have been a considerably more sound – and thus enjoyable – flick.

Photo Credit: Tracy Bennett/CTMG, Inc

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