Does This High School Football Film Challenge the Classic Remember the Titans?

Director: THOMAS CARTER/2014

Everybody Remembers the Titans.  Denzel Washington played Coach Boone who became the first black football coach at a high school during integration, replacing a very popular white coach, Coach Yoast (Will Patton).  Facing the adversity of race, politics, tragedy, as well as the opposing teams, the Titans rose to the occasion and helped pull a divided people together.

Fourteen years later, we get the tale of another storied high school football program who also faced tragedy and had to learn to rise above it.  The De La Salle Spartans set the national winning streak record of 151 consecutive games.  As we begin the film we watch the honor, and loyalty to Coach Bob Ladouceur’s program by the seniors on the team.  And while everyone around wants to know how they keep on winning, we are given a glimpse that the secret to their success is not the best playbook or the biggest players, but a commitment to perfect effort, not perfect execution.  The senior class who goes out on top with another championship and win #151 are humble and are open and honest with one another.  Coming from a rough area in Richmond, California, they truly exist as a band of brothers choosing to stay out of trouble despite the pressures surrounding them in their neighborhoods.

The junior class are a different breed.  They are immature, and entitled, having come up through a football program accustomed to winning.  They don’t work as hard, thinking they will simply continue the team’s winning ways, and it is clear that with them, the team unity is just not there.  There are a lot of individuals looking for their own glory, but very few thinking about the team. We get the feeling that their pride is truly heading towards a giant fall.

When the Game Stands Tall follows the team as they experience the loss of a former teammate, and almost the loss of their coach.  After losing their first two games of the next season, will Coach Ladouceur be able to overcome his struggles and teach the team what it means to succeed in life, and not just on the field?

Thomas Carter (Coach Carter, Save the Last Dance) directs this film and gives it a real heart.  Many have decried the film for being too simplistic, and dismissing the Christian narrative that the Coach uses to guide his team.  But we must remember that De La Salle is a Christian school, and Coach Ladouceur teaches a Bible class there and personally includes the basic tenants of integrity, honesty, hard work, and sacrifice into his football program, as supported by his faith.  The film is honest enough to show both the coach, as well as others doubting this same faith as tragedy strikes, and the film doesn’t seek to sermonize or provide simple solutions.  The questions are just left hanging.  “Why does God allow bad things to happen if He is good?”  The answers provided sound simple, but living them out is anything but, as we see through this story.

Compared to a film like Remember the TitansWhen the Game Stands Tall contains a lot more football than Titans does.  The movie moves at a quick pace matching the intensity of the games themselves.  There is also a lot of development.  Where Titans allowed you to get to know the players more, When the Game Stands Tall is about developing the narrative Coach Ladouceur is seeking to instill in his team, which includes his own son, in the midst of all of the outside pressures they are under from family life, their neighborhood realities, and the pressure to recover from “blowing the streak”.

Jim Caviezel is able to use the quiet demeanor of his portrayal of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, and channel it into his depiction of Coach Ladouceur.  During the end credits, you will see several videos of the real-life coach giving speeches to his team.  And while he is as laid back as portrayed in the film, Caviezel misses an opportunity to be as quietly charismatic as the real-life Ladouceur, almost underplaying him at key moments.  It is a good performance, but Caviezel could have pushed further, or provided more non-verbal expressions of this man’s hidden strength and fire.  Denzel Washington was able to communicate much more depth with his non-verbal cues in Remember the Titans, and more of that could have been used here.

Laura Dern and Michael Chiklis are good in their supporting roles and Alexander Ludwig (The Hunger Games) is good as running back Chris Ryan, one of De La Salle’s stars.  There is also a great bunch of extras who populate a VA Hospital and provide the immature De La Salle team a healthy dose of perspective that helps them re-evaluate their approach to life, and their efforts on the field.

When the Game Stands Tall is a good, not great feel-good film following another such film called The Hundred Foot Journey which focuses on food rather than football.  While many have asked for Hollywood to produce more of these type of films, they are not typically showing up to the box office to support them.  It will be interesting to see if they will for this film.

And while Remember the Titans is the superior film, When the Game Stands Tall is a strong film about overcoming adversity that holds up the power of unity and community to today’s teens who are need of a way out of many of the pressures they face every day.  As Coach Ladouceur tells his team often, that its not about winning on the field as much as being the kind of person who will win in life.  This is a message we all need to hear.  It’s more poignat coming from a team who epitomized the highest level of success at their peak and who learned what was truly important when they came face to face with their own mortality, individually and as a team. Truly, When the Game Stands Tall….stands tall.