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The Game of their Lives

Category: The Game of Their Lives Reviews
Article Date: April 15, 2005 | Publication: www.tonymedley.com | Author: Tony Medley
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rating 9 out of 10)

Walter Bahr raised two sons, Matt and Chris, both of whom became renowned place kickers in the NFL. But that’s not Walter Bahr’s legacy. On June 19, 1950, he was one of the leaders of a ragtag group of American soccer players who went up against the best soccer team in the world, England, and beat them in the opening round of the World Cup, soccer’s quadrennial World Series.

The story is even more amazing because the team was picked only shortly before the World Cup was to begin in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This film tells the story of how the players were picked by Bill Jeffrey (John Rhys Davies), the ten days they had to try to become a team, and then the trip to Rio and, finally, the game itself against England and its star, Stan Mortenson (Gavin Rossdale, lead singer/songwriter for the British rock group “bush,” making his motion picture acting debut), considered the best player in the world at the time.

Although most of the players were recruited from in and around St. Louis, then the center of soccer interest in the United States, Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley), a halfback from Philadelphia emerged as the putative coach and leader of the team, even though he’s challenged by loudmouth partyboy “Pee Wee” Wallace (Jay Rodan). Bahr was astute enough to realize that the St. Louisians looked to goalkeeper Frank Borghi (Gerard Butler, fresh from his starring role as The Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “The Phantom of the Opera”) as their emotional leader, so he enlisted Borghi as sort of a co-leader. Bahr induced Borghi to accompany him to recruit Joe Gaetjens (Jimmy Jean-Louis), a Haitian-born kitchen worker, an inspirational player Bahr was convinced would make the team competitive (and who scored the only goal in the game). Jean-Louis adds spirit and lightness to the film with a captivating performance.

Shot on a meager budget in 49 days, director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo (who collaborated in 1986 on “Hoosiers,” the best basketball movie I’ve seen, and 1993’s “Rudy”) ensured that the equipment used was the same equipment that was extant in 1950, like soft leather soccer balls, some with laces. They had to order 200 of them specially made from a manufacturer in Pakistan. Costume designer Jane Anderson had a California manufacturer create a heavy cotton knit that replicated the feeling of the period for the uniforms and the socks.

The sequences of the actual games are extraordinarily realistic, reminiscent of last year’s “Miracle,” which is the best sports movie I’ve ever seen. It’s virtually impossible to determine that what we are watching are staged scenes in a movie and not clips from actual competition. As in “Miracle,” many of the actors are real soccer players, which enhances the realism without resorting to doubles.

My only complaint about the movie is that it does nothing to explain the game of soccer. Maybe the reason it doesn’t is that neither Pizzo nor Anspaugh was familiar with the game, so they tell the story without ever explaining the theory or science involved. I think for the film to be more meaningful to American audiences, some effort should have been made to explain it. Surely there must be more to the game of soccer than a bunch of people running up and down the field trying to kick a round ball into a net. What’s the difference between a full-back, a forward, a mid-fielder, and a half-back? Inquiring minds would like to know and here was a terrific opportunity to educate the vast masses of Americans who are mystified how soccer could be the most popular sport in the world. But I walked out of the movie knowing as little about the sport as I knew walking in.

An effort is made to make the competition somewhat understandable by the BBC Announcer (Tim Vickery), as he calls the game while we’re watching it. It’s an effective way to show the playing of a game in a movie, rather than trying to show players communicating with one another during the game, and Vickery is in the same league as Vin Scully and Chick Hearn.

You don’t have to be a soccer fan to like this movie; I’m not and I loved it.

March 31, 2005

 


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