When the Game Stands Tall: A Shadowlander Movie Review

Inspiring teacher movies are all about how wonderful teachers change the lives of young people–Dead Poet’s Society, To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, to name a few. Sports movies are generally about how a sports hero overcomes tremendous odds to win The Big Game–Rocky, Rush, Rudy.  The sub-genre of the inspiring teacher/sports movie is about how a great coach teaches his/her young athletes to succeed, and to win The Big Game–Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights. When the Game Stands Tall is a good  example of the inspiring teacher/sports movie subgenre.   I fancy myself to be a teacher, and always wanted to be an inspirational one so, I have to admit that I love inspiring teacher movies.  I’m also a sucker for sports movies.  So, yes, I’m a total sucker for Inspiring Teacher Sports Movies.  When the Game Stands Tall is a first rate example of the sub-genre.

It is based on the true story of Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) , football coach of the De La Salle High School Spartans, the team that holds the record for winning the most games in a row: 151 which is 12 years of consecutive wins.  De La Salle is a Catholic school, and Ladouceur teaches a Biblical studies class. He was (and is) a devout Christian, and that’s a main reason he has remained at De La Salle, turning down much more lucrative college coaching offers. His thinking is that he can have the most positive impact on young men’s lives by coaching at the high school level, initially very much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Bev (Laura Dern). Her thinking is that it would be nice if he were home with his family occasionally, and also, the bigger paycheck wouldn’t hurt either.  That conflict doesn’t take up much of the film, especially after Ladouceur has a heart attack and has to turn over spring practice to his best friend and assistant head coach, Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis).  When Ladouceur finally is able to return to coaching, the guys on the team are busy sniping at each other, and lack the unity that had previously been their legacy.  So, of course, they lose what was to be game 152; “the streak” ends at 151. They lose the next game as well.  This sets up The Big Game, a televised battle set up during “the streak” with Long Beach Polytechnic High School, a much deeper and bigger squad, against whom the Spartans basically have no chance. Think Apollo Creed, to their Rocky Balboa.

In lots of ways this is a pretty conventional sports movie including a brush with tragedy–a star player is murdered sitting in his car–and the coach and community have to deal with the tricky theological implications of random acts of murder, the unfairness that strikes us all especially when young people die unnecessarily. There’s the expected ‘inspiring team-building field trip,’ like the trip the team takes to Gettysburg in Remember the Titans. Coach takes his Spartans o a local VA hospital to brush shoulders with wounded soldiers. There are the obligatory ‘working hard in practice’ montages. The players gradually are distinguished from each other, individualized, and each gets a moment of triumph.  Although formulaic it is very well done, well acted, well filmed, and the football sequences are believable.  And, as usual with high school sports movies, the actors are consistently five years older than the kids they’re supposed to be playing. Even so the movie is well done and effective.

Where When the Game Stands Tall departs from convention is that it does not end with the Big Game. The Big Game for De La Salle was the third game of the season. There was an entire season to finish, and the movie takes another twenty minutes to finish it. But the focus shifts to the team’s star running back, Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), and his story. Ryan is very close to breaking the state record for career touchdowns, a record his abusive father (Clancy Brown) very much wants him to break. Ludwig is very convincing as a big, John Riggins-style running back, a bruiser with speed, and he’s a terrific young actor otherwise.  All the Spartans in the movie are played by a fine collection of good young actors. A huge twist comes in the Spartan’s season’s final game, Ryan’s quest to break that record becomes the main storyline of the movie. I won’t give the ending away, but I found it very satisfying, viscerally and thematically.  The movie, it turns out is not about a football team with a long winning streak, but about the values of teamwork and sacrifice and character that the best coaches always stress and embody.

I never had an inspirational high school coach, but I did have some inspirational teachers. My high school speech teacher was a remarkable woman, a life-changingly inspirational coach to me and to hundreds of other kids in our high school. So I get the concept.  I believe if you’re someone who likes inspiring teacher movies,  even if you are personally indifferent to the game of football (say it ain’t so), you’ll enjoy this movie nonetheless.

It’s very easy to be cynical about a movie like this, a very Christian-centric movie about how sports build character and how life lessons are taught by brilliant teachers. Being cynical is in my nature but this movie won me over – I found it very powerful and moving

But like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m a total sucker for Inspiring Teacher Sports Movies like this.

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