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"When the Game Stands Tall" blends football, emotion on screen

08/21/2014, 6:15pm CDT
By Jon Kerr | For Sun-Times Media | @prepspioneer

The best football movies always rise above their niche to feature narratives with a more expansive worldview.

The best football movies always rise above their niche to feature narratives with a more expansive worldview.

“Friday Night Lights,” “We Are Marshall,” “Brian’s Song” and “Rudy” are movies about football players and teams that are really about literature’s classic themes — love and friendship, falls from grace or great journeys. 

From the opening sequence to its perfectly affecting ending scene, it is obvious “When the Game Stands Tall” — which opens Friday — is a movie that has loftier goals than just telling a story about a team that wins a lot of football games.

The film opens in 2003 with the De La Salle Spartans of Concord, California, at the tail end of a record-breaking streak of 151 consecutive wins. The central characters are star running back Chris Ryan (played by Alexander Ludwig), coach’s son Danny Ladouceur (Matthew Daddario) and five-star recruit Terrance Kelly (Stephan James). Director Thomas Carter (“Coach Carter”) takes the camera into their world of locker rooms, classes and local hang outs, eschewing the indulgence often seen in sports films. People talk about “The Streak,” which gives De La Salle national recognition. But Carter and screenwriters Scott Marshall Smith and David Zelon (adapting the book written by former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Hayes) create a world where players and coaches have grown weary of The Streak. It seems that Spartans coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) is anguished by the weighty distinction. 

The film’s dramatic arc occurs at the midway point when tragedy strikes and causes De La Salle to finally lose its record winning streak. This is where the movie takes off. The filmmakers, much like the football program itself, are no longer burdened by The Streak and can instead focus on character development.

This is a Hollywood production (although made with a miniscule $15 million budget) filmed on location in New Orleans, but what makes “When the Game Stands Tall” memorable is the small moments. It has fantastic action scenes, shot with gritty authenticity (Carter used real football players, not actors, and it shows). But what the audience also gets is a behind-the-curtain view of the minutiae that make Ladouceur’s program the best in the history of high school football.  

Whether it be grueling offseason workouts, a poignant trip to a military hospital or gripping pregame meetings where players speak to one another not in corny platitudes but with honest dialogue, “When the Game Stands Tall” will remind viewers why they play — or want their children to play — team sports. 

Near the end of the film, coach Ladouceur asks his players, “What do we owe each other?” It’s as if Caviezel is asking the audience the same question, pointing out that victory is only achieved through noble sacrifice.  

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