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The Game of Their Lives

Category: The Game of Their Lives Reviews
Article Date: April 20, 2005 | Publication: USSoccerPlayers | Author: Andrew Monfried

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DALLAS, TX (April 20, 2005) - 55 years in the making, American soccer fans finally get a glimpse of the preparation and personalities behind the 1950 U.S. World Cup team in the new movie, “The Game of Their Lives.”

Hotly anticipated by the American soccer community, this movie offers a spectacular view of the 1-0 upset in Belo Horizonte, throughtfully and accurately recreated by director David Anspaugh whose other sport credit, Hoosiers, is a film and sporting classic.

This movie may be supremely satisfying for the soccerphile, but there are woeful holes in the plot, glaring historical errors and too much formulaic character development to make it consistently interesting for the average movie-goer.

As many biopics are wont to do, we open with a flashback from the present day with Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek) playing an aged Dent McSkimming, the only American journalist to cover the 1950 World Cup. His awkward chemistry with real-life soccer commentator Sean Wheelock, playing a press relations type, causes a serious disconnect for any moviegoer with any hope of organic storyline. His asynchronous narration of the story also contrasts with a solid peformance of a younger McSkimming by the normally insidious character actor Terry Kinney (Oz, Sleepers).

Still, we are taken back to St. Louis of the 1950’s. The producers do a gorgeous job of recreating the Hill or “La Montana,” an ethnic enclave in the city known for their denizens’ soccer prowess. There, we meet the central figures in the film, goalkeeper Frank Borghi (Gerard Butler), halfback Gino Pariani (Louis Mandylor), Charlie “Gloves” Columbo (Costas Mandylor) and Frank “Pee Wee” Wallace (Jay Rodan) who squeeze in their mundane professions around the game they love.

Presented with a chance to represent their country in the World Cup, they all face life-changing decisions on whether to participate. As in all hero-building, each of the St. Louis natives is given a tragic flaw they must overcome to make the team. For Borghi, it’s pride, Pariani, the choice between soccer and the woman he loves, Columbo, straddling the line between civility and violence, and Wallace, a fear of flying very loosely explained due to previous injuries in service during World War II. In real life, Wallace was interned in a German prison camp for 15 months after being captured at Anzio.

The St. Louis group which also includes Harry Keough (Zachary Ty Bryan) is forced to compete against a group of eastern-based soccer players led by Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley) for the right to play for their country. Deciding their fate is National Team manager Bill Jeffrey, ridiculously overplayed and marginalized simultaneously by the talented John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings, Shogun).

This is unfortunately where the story of the movie and history seriously disconnect. For all the cultural and racial division this movie fails to play up between the groups, historians will note that Bahr, Borghi, Colombo, Keough, and John “Clarkie” Souza (former Tampa Bay Mutiny player Nelson Vargas) had actually known each other for months before this so called introduction thanks to a North American qualifying tournament held in Mexico in 1949, 10 months before the 1950 World Cup.

Allowing that, the dynamic of the storyline involves the St. Louis faction led by Borghi feuding with Bahr’s easterners. Bentley (American Beauty) portrays Bahr as the perfect leader combining talent with a tactical knowledge of the game, a part of the movie that is very accurate. It’s the relationship that develops between Borghi and Bahr’s character that eventually cements the team.

As always, a character is needed to provide comedic and social contrast to the struggles, and that’s where we find young Haitian dishwasher Joe Gaetjens (Jimmy-Jean Louis). Louis (Hollywood Homicide), a Haitian himself, creates a character who comes across as a boerderline mystic dedicated to voodoo and elaborate pre-game rituals that offend the Catholic sensibilities of Pariani, another storyline that fizzles. In reality, the Columbia University-educated Gaetjens was, from all indications, a highly intelligent person who would become a successful businessman later in life.

To help elaborate the storyline, the producers also try to create a villain in English superstar Stanley Mortensen (Bush frontman and Gwen Stefani beau Gavin Rossdale) to heighten the heroic nature of the American team. Rossdale is actually a passable footballer, but his inclusion as a central character (including dominating a pre-World Cup friendly match against the U.S. that never actually happened) is a stab in the dark at creating drama.

While the movie ignores the three pre-World Cup games the U.S. plays and loses badly to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Italy, it does play up the night escapades of the team in Brazil, something Bahr has corrected in recent press accounts. Most of the team did not drink despite rumors to the contrary that they were out partying the night before the match.

The movie naturally builds its drama to the match against England, actually the second game the U.S. played in the tournament (having lost to Spain 3-1 in Cortiba four days earlier). This is the pinnacle of the film’s cinematography, thanks to another Hall of Famer himself, Eric Wynalda, a technical advisor to the movie.

Few people outside of BBC archivists have seen the actual film from this game, much less in living color. The oft-seen clip from the FIFA film of this match is not the actual goal. Even though this is seen through Hollywood’s eyes, it’s a more than satisfying recreation that will leave a true soccer fan with goose bumps.

The Belo Horizonte stadium was recreated for the movie as well as the U.S. and England uniforms down to the stitch. The game action is truly thrilling and some of the best sports recreation in recent memory. Live and slow motion editing allow for a smooth blending of pulse-pounding action and drama. The only goal of the game is also faithfully produced by real-life soccer hero John Harkes (playing Ed McIlvenny) whose throw-in to Bentley is booted on goal where Louis stretches much as we are told Gaetjens did to head it past England goalkeeper Bert Willilams.

Scoring a goal 39 minutes in is hardly the most dramatic moment of a game, but England’s assault on the American goal in the second half is given the full treatment. Butler does a more than convincing job as a goalkeeper, but the producers were wise to use a stunt man (Jesse Lippert) with actual goalkeeping experience for the more difficult scenes.

The movie ends on the historical high we all have read about, and the end of the movie is as fitting tribute as possible to the surviving heroes of the tournament. The film makes no mention of the unfortunate end that Gaetjens would meet at the hands of the Haitian secret police in 1964 or really any indication of what happened next.

Unfortunately, this movie may pale financially and critically against another soccer movie coming out at the same time, Will Ferrell’s Kicking and Screaming. In the end though, the film is a fitting tribute to American soccer history even if the producers had to invent some of their own to advance the story.

Andrew Monfried is senior writer for USSoccerPlayers.


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