Published Aug 22, 2014The De La Salle Spartans aren't like most high school football teams. For starters, they take the field holding hands with each other and their players stand up in team meetings to declare how much they care for their fellow teammates. Of course, whatever they're doing appears to be working. After all, they've set the record for the longest winning streak in sports by prevailing in over 150 consecutive games.
Aside from its terrible title, When The Game Stands Tall is a worthy entry in the inspirational sports genre, distilling the essence of what makes football — and all sports, really — capable of teaching core values to kids that can translate to other aspects of life. Sure, it's corny at times and drags in places, but it offers enough twists to an old formula to leave an impression.
The movie is wise to not focus too much on the success experienced throughout the team's unprecedented run but instead on how the group reacts to failure and tragedy. That's in keeping with the philosophy of Coach Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), who preaches (along with the gospel) how adversity builds character.
It's interesting to see Caviezel play against the stereotype of a football coach, but in the clips of the real-life Ladouceur during the credits, the portrayal appears to be entirely accurate. Whether at home with his wife (Laura Dern) or coaching a group that includes his own wide receiver son (Matthew Daddario), Ladouceur chooses to communicate in a measured and soft-spoken manner instead of the usual gruff intensity. He's content to let his assistant coach (Michael Chiklis) do all of the yelling.
The players seem to respond well to the approach. Running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) is chasing down a career record for touchdowns while being encouraged a little too aggressively by his overbearing father (Clancy Brown). Cam Colvin (Ser'Darius Blain) and T.K. Kelly (Stephan James) are deciding on scholarships from colleges. Beaser (Joe Massingill) is an undersized defensive lineman not lacking for heart.
Most movies like this lead up to a big game. This one gets it out of the way a little early in a classic contest that takes place on a scorcher of a day. The conclusion, then, may feel a little anti-climactic, but it uses the opportunity to make a salient point about how achievements and streaks mean little next to what it means to play together as a team.
In a visit to a veterans hospital, the team bonds with a group of wounded soldiers and hear a few words of wisdom straight from Black Hawk Down that are true of at least combat and football: "It's about the man next to you."