The distinction may be too subtle for those who believe God, if she exists, has better things to do with her time than oversee whether a high school football team wins or loses a game. But the evidence on display in the based-on-true-life When the Game Stands Tall—a tall, frosty glass of diet Red State served with enough straws for all to share—implies that the brotherhood and Christian faith shared in tandem by those who partake in prep sports are meant to serve a common goal, one that’s not necessarily preoccupied by wins. And the reason football is taken as a religion among an intimidatingly large portion of the nation’s population isn’t so much because it means potential fame and scholarships for kids who don’t have many other options, but because the game itself can teach its players how to be men. Or at least one kind of man—the kind people who use the phrase “how to be a man” are usually talking about.
As if to drive the notion of football as a character-building apparatus home, When the Game Stands Tall kicks off its narrative arc with a loss that shocks a team right to their core. From 1992 through 2003, De La Salle, a private Catholic school in the suburban San Francisco Bay Area, racked up a startling legacy of wins. Under the leadership of head coach Bob Ladouceur, the team triumphed in 151 straight games. The movie opens with the last of these before turning its gaze on the 2004 team. Thanks in part to the other coaches in a fed-up (and beat-up) conference, the Spartans are more or less forced to branch out and face infinitely tougher teams, and consequently drop the very first game of their season.
For Ladouceur, an incongruously taciturn man seemingly allergic to game fuel and a coach whose endorsement of gentility and mutual support align him more closely with Fred Rogers than Mike Ditka, this incredibly painful loss presents the opportunity of a lifetime to put those lessons he’s been teaching in the classroom about the Book of Job into practice. And his suddenly more receptive (no pun intended) gridiron apostles have much to learn both on the field and off; among the standard-issue positions covered here are the golden-boy BMOC whose vicarious-living father is mercilessly goading him behind the scenes, the boastful superstar in the making who counts at least a half dozen I’s in “T-E-A-M,” and even the diminutive third-stringer who’s just happy to keep the bench warm for his team.
As played by Jim Caviezel apparently under some form of hypnosis, Ladouceur insists the team’s winning streak was always tangential to the other measures of success, that all he requires from his players isn’t a perfect game, but “a perfect effort.” Caviezel commits only to the level of God-like omniscience that Mel Gibson whipped into him a decade ago, and as such his character often seems less a teacher than an appropriately shadowy figurehead of authority. In the grand scheme of mud-caked football parables, it’s notable that When the Game Stands Tall’s brand of triumph focuses on cleansing the spirit—and even more notable that it depicts teammates walking onto the field hand in hand, in pairs like they’re boarding Noah’s Arc, without feeling compelled to address gay panic. But the fact that the movie even works as well as it does says less about its skill passing hokum off as genuine human interest, and more about the vast disparity between its blessedly soft sell and 2014’s snorting offensive line of overtly fundie-indie luminaries like God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real, where recognizable human behavior scarcely plays a role.