A film review by Craig J. Koban August 29, 2014 


2014, PG, 115 mins.


Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur  /  Alexander Ludwig as Chris Ryan  /  Michael Chiklis as Terry Eidson  /  Laura Dern as Bev Ladouceur  /  Clancy Brown as Mickey Ryan

Directed by Thomas Carter  /  Written by Scott Marshall Smith, based on the book by Neil Hayes

WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is a rare football drama that’s more compellingly about the nature of losing than it is about winning.  

The reality based sports drama – based on the 2003 book of the same name by Neil Hayes – concerns the improbably astounding winning streak of the De La Salle Spartans of Concord, California, a team that managed – over the course of a decade – to amass a winning streak of…no bull...151-0.  

That’s right.  151 wins without a loss.  

This team simply could not be defeated over the course of 12 years (1992-2004)…but everything comes to an end.  In 2004 the Spartans did indeed taste bitter defeat, which had untold psychological ramifications not only on the players and coaches, but also on the school and community as a whole.  The Spartans had to learn how to win again. 

This tale of a miraculous winning streak and subsequent losses is fertile ground for an intriguing sports film, especially when one considers the toll it must have taken on Concord when their Herculean team that seemed indestructible eventually got a reality check and wake-up call.  Yet, the real problem with WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is not that it lacks an endlessly compelling premise.  No, the central issue with the film is in its overall handling of the underling material.  The film’s director, Thomas Carter (COACH CARTER), creates football sequences with a refreshing clarity and high energy level, but the melodrama that surrounds those spirited sequences lacks the grit of the game itself.  Too much of WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is an uneasy conglomeration of overused sports film clichés, disinteresting subplots, artificially derived sentimentality, and faith-based Sunday school sermonizing that never really gels together with any fluidity.  Dramatically, this film – if you pardon the metaphor – fumbles the ball repeatedly. 



The film, at least, does not spend too much time on the Spartans’ actual winning streak itself.  The story opens in the summer of 2004 as the varsity football team had reached their mythic status as an unstoppable force on the field.  Their beloved and respected coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) created a winning team based on self-respect, individual responsibility and accountability, and a “for the love of the game” attitude.  It seemed that nothing would impede this team’s successful formula…but then a series of personal setbacks and tragedies strike.  Firstly, one of the star players is shot to death, leaving the team and community emotionally devastated.  Next, Ladouceur suffers a near fatal heart attack that potentially derails any future plans to coach the team.  Thirdly, many Spartan players suffer from anxieties about which colleges they wish to attend in order to achieve scholastic and athletic fame.  Then, yes, the Spartans do indeed lose a game…and then another…and when Ladouceur does return he realizes that he faces more of an uphill battle of reinstalling confidence in his players than he ever did with stringing together 151 wins in a row.  Seeing the faith of his players decreasing by the day and game, Ladouceur understands the difficult job ahead. 

Scott Marshall Smith’s screenplay does a decent job of immersing us in the microcosm of small town America and how the sport of football is as much of a religion as Christianity is to the local high school.  Akin to FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, the sport is a socio-cultural glue that, for better of for worse, holds Concord together, so when the Spartans do lose it has ripple effects that can be felt well beyond the school locker room.  The film is assisted in this regard with some fine and nuanced performances.  Jim Caviezel's appearance in a staunchly Christian values themed film may seem obtrusively obvious (he famously played Jesus in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST), not to mention that is trademark steely eyed stoicism may have some feeling that his character is emotionally hollow.  Yet, he injects a serene dignity and poise in Ladouceur that serves the film’s message well.  He’s assisted, in turn, by solid supporting performances, especially by Laura Dern, who brings some low-key class to an otherwise perfunctory “supportive wife” role.  Michael Chiklis brings warmth and humor to his part of the Spartan’s assistant coach that sticks with Ladouceur's principles with an unwavering commitment. 

Still, for as much dedication as the actors have with their respective parts, the screenplay they are left to dutifully serve somewhat betrays their good work in front of the camera.  Too much of WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is awash in daytime soap opera level subplots that that we’ve seen time and time…and time…again in sports melodramas.  There’s one involving Clancy Brown playing a hideously overbearing and verbally abusive father that cares less for his son’s well being on the field and more for his success and accomplishments on the field (there is rarely a moment in the film when this story arc feels like it wasn’t ripped from countless other football films).  Then there’s another story thread involving Cam (Ser’ Darius Blain) and the torment he feels over his teammate's murder.  The film sets this up as a major plot point in the overall narrative, and then it kind of abandons it and reintroduces it when it feels the narrative needs an injection of manufactured sentimentality.  It’s sad when would-be involving characters like this and their dilemmas are only haphazardly developed and then discarded in an effort to get to the obligatory big climatic game. 

The film’s collision of Christian morals and Bible-centric life lessons with the rough and rugged gridiron action of football is not handled with as much care and tact as this film thinks.  I would not say that WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is obnoxiously preachy as far as inspirational sports/religious dramas go, but there’s no doubt that the film lacks a much-needed dosage of edge to help dramatically ground it a bit more.  The film never fully delves deep enough into the psychological quandaries of the Spartan players and coaches as they try to dig themselves out of an existentialist dilemma.  I’m quite sure that it took far more than Ladouceur’s “play for the team, not for yourself” lessons for the real Spartan team to get by and return to success on the field.  Yet, WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL feels more obligated towards greeting card levels of syrupy, uplifting feel-good messages than it does with thoroughly investing in what it really takes to bring a team together after a string of defeats on and off the field. 

This film is well intentioned.  It’s also well acted.  It also contains a good message about finding the oftentimes-difficult healthy balance between winning and loving the game that one strives to win at.  All of this, though, is simply not explored with any memorable or lasting significance and impact to make WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL stand well apart from other football dramas that came before it. 

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