When the Game Stands Tall
“When the Game Stands Tall” is a very good and very atypical sports drama. The hook is that it’s about the longest winning streak in American sports history, as the De La Salle High School Spartans from Concord, Calif., went 11 years without losing — 151 wins in a row.
But the man at the middle of that story, Bob Ladouceur, seems almost embarrassed about the win streak. In fact, the sport of football is practically secondary to the lessons he’s trying to impart — about giving a perfect individual effort, relying and being relied upon by those around you, and forming a bond of brotherhood that will help ease the journey from boyhood to manhood.
Played with a calm, almost monotone voice and personality by Jim Caviezel, Ladouceur was repeatedly courted by big college football programs waiving huge paychecks. But he chose to remain at De La Salle until his retirement last year, because he felt he had something to teach high schoolers that would be lost on men at a university.
Upon hearing one of his players promise before a game that he would rather die than fail to give his best effort, the coach sternly corrects him and provides the sort of perspective you never hear in a sports flick: “Collapse — not die. It’s a high school football game.”
He is in many ways the polar opposite of the central character in “Coach Carter,” which was also directed by Thomas Carter. While that coach was an immense personality who took the extraordinary step of benching his entire team of starters, Ladouceur is the sort of fellow who disappears in a crowd. He barely speaks from the sidelines during games, occasionally grabbing a player’s shoulder pads so he can whisper play calls into his ear.
The story, written by Scott Marshall Smith (“Men of Honor”) and based on the book by Neil Hayes, follows the team through the tumultuous 2004 season, when a team of relatively unseasoned players blew the winning streak in their opening game and then lost their next game, putting not just their season but the entire identity of the school on the brink.
It’s an interesting and appealing twist on the old saw of taking a bunch of misfits and turning them into winners. Here, we glimpse the highs and lows of the sport, as winners become losers and must carefully, painstakingly earn their way back to the top.
The De La Salle program isn’t like most others. It’s a Christian school, so the players’ and coaches’ faith plays a pivotal role in their ethos. They literally walk onto the field hand-in-hand with each other, both as a sign of their fraternity and to psyche out opponents. Players are made responsible for each other’s performance, even writing out their goals for the next season and charging another teammate to hold them to it.
Challenges await as one season ends and preparation for another begins. A beloved player (a charismatic Stephan James) is murdered two days before leaving for college on a football scholarship. Ladouceur endures troubles on the home front (Laura Dern plays his wife, Matthew Daddario his son) and a personal setback. The team’s captain and star running back (a solid Alexander Ludwig) is ridden hard by his superfan dad (Clancy Brown), who pushes him to strive for the state touchdown record rather than leading the team.
I also enjoyed Michael Chiklis as Terry, Ladouceur’s jumpy assistant coach and best friend; Joe Massingill as Beaser, a stolid offensive lineman; and Jessie Usher as Tayshon, a lightning-fast but callow wide receiver who resists his coach’s altruistic teachings.
“When the Game Stands Tall” succeeds by shunning almost every trope of the rah-rah sports genre, celebrating selflessness and solidarity over outsized personalities and individual glory. This is a movie about what it takes to be great, rather than reveling in any one win, or many.