When the Game Stands Tall…
Christian Movie Review
This two hour high school football epic takes the audience on a very detailed journey through the legendary triumphs, defeats, tragedies — and inspiring resurgences — of one of the most legendary football programs in high school history: the De La Salle Spartans from Concord, California. Based on a true story, the film stars Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ), Alexander Ludwig (The Hunger Games), Laura Dern (Jurassic Park), and one of my favorite actors Clancy Brown (Shawshank Redemption). Thomas Carter, the director of Coach Carter, Save the Last Dance, and Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, is at the helm of the movie.
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content/Nudity: None. A married couple kisses. High school students joke to one of their friends that he should be “jumping all over that” with his girlfriend — in reference to sex — and when the guy explains that he has taken a purity pledge (abstinence) until marriage, the football teammates mock him. Male athletes are seen without shirts.
Violence/Gore: A teenager is shot and killed. Though not bloody, we see his body on the ground. Tons of football “violence” — loud, visceral hits and tackles on the field. A father pushes his son and verbally attacks him, and then hits him in the stomach at one point. Two teammates fight, slamming each other to the ground. At a VA rehabilitation clinic, we see several veterans without limbs or with other serious injuries doing their rehab.
Language: A few uses of “oh my god” and the players teasing each other by calling each other ho’s.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: A coach smokes a cigarette, though the context of the scene paints the act of smoking in a very bad light. Teenagers have a house party, and it is inferred that alcohol and drugs are being used, but we only see the party from the street.
Frightening/Intense/Emotionally Heavy Content: Besides the violent content above, the coach of De La Salle has a heart attack, and it is depicted (and acted very well by Caviezel) in a realistic way. The loss of the teenager who was shot is examined through several emotionally intense conversations between characters, and the question of suffering and how we reconcile it with faith in God is explored in an emotionally heavy way.
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Entertainment Value and Film Craft
The first 60% of the movie has more lengthy, emotionally intense conversations between characters and less football action than I was expecting. Much of the film feels more like a family/interpersonal drama than a sports movie. And because the movie is almost two hours long, this makes for a slow build-up to the finale. This will make some viewers fidgety, especially in our impatient, instant culture. All of the acting was fantastic, but I was having a difficult time getting into the story during the first half.
If it wasn’t for the spectacular and surprisingly nuanced finale, I would’ve struggled with this film. Once the football players visit the VA hospital with their coach, the story begins to pack more of a punch and get some noticeable traction. As the tension ramps up, it sucks you into the smaller story lines, and then ends the film with some of the most impressive football action sequences I’ve seen in recent years. I loved the directing style and cinematography for those climactic games. Besides the great sports action, they took all of the different story lines that were so painstakingly charted in the beginning and weaved them all into the action sequences in a seamless way. This made for an emotionally satisfying and inspiring ending. You’ll have to be patient through the first half of the movie to get there, but it’s worth the wait.
Also, Clancy Brown’s performance as the father of one of the football team’s star players was one of the highlights of the film. (If you’re a fan of Shawshank Redemption, you’ll recognize Clancy Brown from his role as the warden’s chief guard, Captain Hadley.)
It was also really fun to see Laura Dern on the big screen. She’s been another favorite of mine since her memorable role in Jurassic Park.
Worldview and Spiritual Elements
This film expresses a decidedly Christian worldview, with characters quoting verses from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. They aren’t superficial shout-outs to the Bible either. These verses provide a framework that informs much of the film’s themes, especially as we watch this group of boys step across the threshold into manhood as they face tragedy, defeat, and difficult tasks together. The coach (Jim Caviezel) is openly Christian, and the team is seen praying together in several scenes.
In general, the film avoids giving shallow, sugarcoated answers to some of life’s most difficult questions, but it also does not shrink away from an overt expression of Christian faith, especially our need to be humble before God if we are to overcome adversity. One of the characters quotes Matthew 23:12 during a pivotal scene: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” It’s a powerful moment that gets under your skin and sets the tone for the film as a whole.
Ultimately, despite the slow build-up in the first half of the movie, I can’t think of a better family movie — especially for families with teenage boys. It paints a Biblical picture of what manhood really means. True manhood is not about looking out for Number One in a dog-eat-dog world, breaking records, or making a name for yourself. True manhood is about sacrificing for others and overcoming adversity with integrity and selflessness, and this movie presents that lesson in a powerful, authentic way — especially in its finale.
And it has some fantastic, riveting football action sequences to boot — just in time for football season! Go De La Salle Spartans!