The Game of Their Lives review by St. Louis Post Dispatch

Category: The Game of Their Lives Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: April 22, 2005 | Publication: St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Author: Joe Williams
Publication/Article Link:

Root, root, root for the home team.

If you're a St. Louisan who lives by that motto, you'll cheer for "The Game of Their Lives." Not only does it tell an inspirational story about some local men who scored what is arguably the biggest upset in soccer history, it was largely filmed here and contributed millions to the hometown economy.

However, if your boosterism is balanced by Show-Me State skepticism, you'll look past the beautifully restored locales and assess the film in objective terms, as if the characters were from Sacramento or Slovenia. On that level, it's adroit, but it can't compete with director David Anspaugh's other two sports movies: "Hoosiers" and "Rudy."

Those estimable films had something vital that "Game" lacks - a main character. Here our emotional investment is divided between an entire team and, to a lesser extent, the Italian-American community that sent four of its native sons to the 1950 World Cup. Because the cast is so large, we get sketches instead of fully realized individuals.

Although we learn that goalkeeper Frank Borghi (rock-solid Gerard Butler) would rather play soccer than go to embalming school, that Pee-Wee Wallace (scene-stealer Jay Rodan) has a fear of enclosed spaces that's somehow related to his wartime experience, and that Harry Keough (rosy-cheeked Zachery Ty Bryan) is learning Spanish to woo a girl, we aren't given a compelling reason to cheer for them besides their nationality.

While the country itself is belittled by the soccer establishment (embodied by Gavin Rossdale as an upper-crusty English player), we never sense that the St. Louis immigrants have personal hurdles to overcome or much stake in the tournament for which they are hastily recruited. The team's East Coast contingent, headed by straight-arrow Walter Bahr (the wasted Wes Bentley) is even less distinctive. And we get only the most racist caricature of Joe Gaitjens (Jimmy Jean-Louis), the free-spirited Haitian dishwasher who was arguably the key to winning the game.

Placing that game in its historical context seems to have been the biggest challenge for the movie, which was adapted from a book by Geoffrey Douglas. The story is framed as a narrated flashback by Dent McSkimming (Patrick Stewart, going through the motions), the Post-Dispatch reporter who traveled with the team to the World Cup tournament in Brazil. Because he's recounting the story in the press box of a Washington soccer stadium that's pulsing with excitement, the implication is that his pioneer enthusiasm for the sport was eventually vindicated.

Yet soccer is still so poorly understood by the average American that the script is able to cheat on its history. Because we see the plucky Yanks beat the arrogant English 1-0 (in admirably dramatic footage), many people will come away from this movie thinking that the United States won the whole tournament. In actuality, the U.S. team lost games both before and after the match against England, and the Americans were sent packing from World Cup competition for the next 40 years. Even granting that their sole victory was a remarkable upset, it might not even have been the most momentous game of the tournament. Shortly after the United States beat the British, the team from tiny Uruguay defeated mighty Brazil in the finals - in front of 200,000 hostile Brazilian fans.

All too clearly, we're supposed to confine our interest to this particular game because the winners were Americans. The appeal to our patriotism is underlined by a far-fetched scene in which the players receive their uniforms from an Air Force commander, who informs them that America is going to war in Korea and is counting on the team to embody the nation's "warrior spirit." Surely it's sufficiently heart-tugging to be reminded that many of the players were heroic veterans of World War II - we didn't need a virtual banner across the scoreboard saying "Mission Accomplished."

Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo imply that a country with the biggest cars, the coolest clothes and the liveliest immigrant enclaves (all of which are lovingly depicted by the top-notch technical crew) would rather have gloppy music, veiled militarism and a doctored timeline than an honest admission of our limits. Yet one glimpse of the actual surviving members of the team, who get a curtain call near the end of the film, is an antidote to the sugar-coating. These humble gentlemen are people we want to know more about, whether or not they ever played a game.

"The Game of Their Lives"
** 1/2 (out of four)
Rating: PG (for some mild language and thematic elements)
Running time: 1:40

Critic Joe Williams
E-mail: joewilliams@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8344