When the Game Stands Tall stresses lessons over victories

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Starring Jim Caviezel. Rated PG.

Vince Lombardi was, evidently, completely full of shit. Get past the bone-cracking, cartilage-crunching, glorious gridiron violence and there’s a surprising lesson to be learned from When the Game Stands Tall.

In what will shock armchair quarterbacks from New England to Los Angeles, winning isn’t, as Lombardi famously argued, the only thing.

At the core of this often overwrought and clunky but not-without-its-moments football biopic is the message that sports isn’t about the results on the scoreboard.

As high-school coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) tells his impressionable young charges, football is about learning values and codes of conduct so that “When you take your place out in the world or in our community you can be depended on.”

At the centre of the film is Ladouceur, a vaguely sullen man who’s not great at being a dad or a husband, but who knows how to run a locker room. Forget being the Bad News Bears of high-school pigskin, the De La Salle Spartans start the film riding an astonishing 151-game winning streak. Things quickly shift to a season where everything goes horribly wrong, which is to say that, to the undying horror of its strangely obsessive fans, the team loses two games. In a row!

The first half of When the Game Stands Tall drags, marred by the spotty acting of a young cast, and by overly melodramatic subplots revolving around the team’s players.

It doesn’t help that Ladouceur isn’t terribly likable; Caviezel plays the head Spartan as uninterested in everything but the game, which admittedly may be the whole point. What saves the second half of When the Game Stands Tall, and ultimately the film, is the on-field game sequences. Director Thomas Carter takes a boy’s game—the kids are in high school, after all—and turns it into NFL–calibre trench warfare. Bodies collide in concussion-causing ballets of violence, to the point where an early game comes off like a protracted championship grudge match.

Lombardi might not totally approve of When the Game Stands Tall’s winning-really-isn’t-the-only-thing message, but he’d approve of the results.

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