Game of Their Lives' is Fun Film, But It's No 'Hoosiers'

Category: The Game of Their Lives Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: April 12, 2005 | Publication: Matchnight.com | Author: Chad Reynolds
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Soccer Fans Will Enjoy It. Appeal to the General Audience is a Question Mark

The writer/director team who made Hoosiers and Rudy, now present the true story of the greatest upset in the history of the world's greatest sporting event. In the summer of 1950, a group of Sunday-league soccer players from St. Louis combined with a collection of the best the east coast had to offer to travel to Brazil and compete in soccer's grandest tournament, the World Cup. The team had only ten days to prepare before they departed for Rio de Janeiro, and was given only one directive, "Don't embarrass us."

It is impossible to put into words how big of an underdog the U.S. team was in Brazil, and the bookies couldn't come up with the numbers for it either. The United States was the only country that wasn't listed when the odds to win the Cup were released. For their match against England, a team widely considered to be the best in the world, the odds were "off the charts." I trust I'm not ruining the ending for anybody when I "reveal" the fact that the long-shot U.S. team shocked the world (well, the rest of the world, in reality the result went largely unnoticed in the States) by scoring early and holding on for a 1-0 victory.

The film begins by introducing Dent McSkimming (Patrick Stewart), the only American journalist who traveled to Brazil, at the 2004 MLS All-Star game. In rather predictable sports movie fashion, Dent is asked by a modern soccer journalist (Fox Soccer Channel's Sean Wheelock, essentially playing himself) to recount the story from the beginning.

Flashback to 1950 St. Louis and the Italian-American community known as "The Hill," where Frank Borghi (Gerard Butler, The Phantom of the Opera) and his teammates Gino Pariani (Louis Mandylor), Charlie Colombo (Costas Mandylor), and PeeWee Wallace (Jay Rodan) are facing off in a Sunday-league match against a squad led by Harry Keough (Zachary Ty Bryan of Home Improvement). After the match, the players are told of a tryout the next morning for the U.S. World Cup team. Of course, the entire contingent makes the squad, leaving behind jobs, wedding plans, and in Wallace's case, a severe fear of flying to represent their country.

Their new teammates are all from the east coast, which causes problems right away, on and off the soccer field. The easterners play a more tactical style of soccer with a lot of finesse, which doesn't gel well with the free-flowing, no-frills game of the St. Louisans. Off the pitch, things are even worse when the east coast and Midwest personalities don't match. Wallace in particular takes offense to the take-charge attitude of midfielder Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley), the team's de-facto coach. Naturally, everything comes together in time for the trip to Brazil, where the team does the unthinkable.

The filmmakers took a cue from the hockey movie Miracle and hired performers with extensive soccer experience to make the soccer scenes extremely realistic. In fact, three of the members of the U.S. squad are played by "actors" with MLS experience. Nino DaSilva as Eddie Sousa and Nelson Vargas as Clarkie Sousa (no relation) have fairly minimal roles, while former U.S. National Team captain John Harkes plays a larger role as Ed McIlleny, a Scottish fullback from Philadelphia.

Eric Wynalda, the U.S. National Team's all-time leading goal scorer, makes a cameo appearance as one of the English players during the climactic game. Wynalda also worked as the soccer consultant on the movie to help keep the soccer scenes as real as possible. Ironically, the most unrealistic parts of the entire film are Harkes' hair color and Scottish accent.

The film also features supporting performances from John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as U.S. coach Bill Jeffrey, Terry Kinney (The Laramie Project) as a younger Dent McSkimming, and Gavin Rossdale (lead singer of the British rock band Bush, making his film debut) as England star Stanley Mortenson.

The biggest criticism that can be made of the film is with Pizzo's writing, which can be excused to some extent considering his lack of knowledge of the game of soccer itself. Unfortunately, director David Anspaugh also lacked familiarity with the sport, and this holds the movie back at times. The amazing atmosphere surrounding the World Cup is treated as nothing more than a small Brazilian street carnival, and there is little to no electricity in the crowd's reaction to the match itself. The American goal scorer, Joe Gaetjens (Jimmy Jean-Louis), is carried off the pitch after the match by one of the least-excited crowds in sports movie history. In reality, the Brazilian fans adopted the upstart American team during their opening match against Spain, and treated the U.S. victory over hated England almost as if it was the tournament final.

For all of the historical liberties taken with the story, and there were quite a few more (see this article: Warning, contains spoilers), The Game of Their Lives is an enjoyable, if somewhat light, sports movie. Its shortcomings can be overlooked as nitpicky, and to be perfectly fair, the majority of the changes make sense from a storytelling standpoint.

The Game of Their Lives is a fun film, and from a soccer standpoint is about as realistic as it gets. While it doesn't come anywhere near the level of Anspaugh and Pizzo's basketball classic Hoosiers, which gets this writer's vote for greatest sports movie of all time, it definitely ranks right up there with Rudy.

Ask any filmmaker and they'll tell you that all they want when they make a sports movie is for the audience to feel an emotional attachment to what's happening on the screen. Anspaugh and Pizzo obviously accomplished this as the American goal elicited cheers from the crowd at the Kansas City screening. The final whistle blew, and while the audience cheered again, I honestly got goose bumps.

And that's all I want from a soccer match, on the pitch, or on the screen.

The Game of Their Lives opens is select theaters in select markets on April 22. A wide release date has not been announced as of this writing