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Category: The Game of Their Lives Reviews
Article Date: April 22, 2005 | Publication: Sports Illustrated | Author: Grant Wahl

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Filmmakers of Game of Their Lives set bar too high

Two years ago my jaw hit the floor when I heard the writer-director team that did Hoosiers and Rudy was making a $27 million film on the U.S. soccer team's epic 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup. Here was one of the greatest upsets in sports history, a ragtag bunch of Yanks taking down the World Cup favorite, and now a proven director (David Anspaugh) and writer (Angelo Pizzo) were going to spin the tale for the masses.

For those of us enchanted by the 1950 team -- I proudly wear an old Toffs 1950 U.S. replica jersey on weekends -- the opportunity was tantalizing: Would we finally get a Hoosiers for U.S. soccer fans?

The Game of Their Lives opens in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis on Friday, and while the film is certainly worth seeing -- especially if you're curious about the history of American soccer or a youth coach taking your team on a motivational field trip -- it never quite manages to hit the high notes that made Hoosiers a giant in the sports-movie pantheon. Few films do, of course, and yet some telling missteps (despite the richness of the material) make GOTL seem like a squandered opportunity for greatness.

The filmmakers do get a lot of things right. As anyone who's seen Leonardo DiCaprio flail around in The Basketball Diaries knows, laughable game action is the kiss of death for a sports movie, and I'm happy to say GOTL's soccer scenes are spot-on, even more realistic than those in 1981's Victory (which merely had Pelé and Argentinian legend Ossie Ardiles in the cast). That's no small feat, and it's a credit to U.S. Hall of Famer Eric Wynalda, who served as a consultant to the movie, and a cast that includes several former players, including ex-MLS stars John Harkes (elected to the Hall of Fame this week), Nelson Vargas and Nino DaSilva.

Likewise, GOTL captures the period perfectly, reproducing the 1950s-era game down to the smallest details, from the heavy cotton uniforms to the lace-up soccer balls to the maddeningly uncomfortable cleats the players wore. It helps that Anspaugh shot on location in the Hill section of St. Louis (home to several U.S. team members) and in Brazil, the site of the 1950 World Cup. There's no faking the Hill's city parks, Rio de Janeiro's distinctive sidewalk tile patterns or the majesty of the Copacabana Palace hotel, and the extra money spent to avoid filming in Toronto and Puerto Rico was well worth it.

Best of all, GOTL is the most high-profile monument yet to the 1950 U.S. team, a motley crew of amateur and semipro players led by midfielder Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley) and goalkeeper Frank Borghi (Gerard Butler) that somehow toppled the full-time professionals from the country that invented the game. How big an upset was it? Keep in mind that despite being regarded as the finest team on the planet, England only deigned to compete in its first World Cup in 1950, finally legitimizing the event as a true global championship. One bookmaker set the odds on a U.S. victory over England at 500 to 1.

The U.S., for its part, was a lot like a No. 15 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament. Though the Yanks had reached the semis of the inaugural 1930 World Cup, the national team had fallen into disrepair, and the few games the U.S. played in the two years before World Cup '50 included disastrous losses to Norway (11-0), Northern Ireland (5-0), Scotland (4-0) and Mexico (6-0). Only a 5-2 victory over lowly Cuba at the World Cup qualifying tournament (the U.S.'s first win in three tries against the Cubans) had earned the Yanks an invite to Brazil in the first place

There's plenty of drama in the facts of the story, which is why the filmmakers' insistence on inventing fake storylines for dramatic effect is so puzzling. It's one thing to frame the plot as a series of present-day flashbacks by St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Dent McSkimming (Patrick Stewart), the only U.S. journalist who followed the team to Brazil. But GOTL, based on the book by Geoffrey Douglas, takes the fictioneering to unhealthy extremes.

Do we really need ethnic tension between the East Coast and St. Louis players to drive the film's first hour when the participants themselves say it wasn't like that? Do we really need to act as if the U.S.'s World Cup-opening loss to Spain never happened? Do we really need to create an Ivan Drago-style villain in England's Stanley Mortensen (rocker Gavin Rossdale) just to satisfy Hollywood? And do we really need to turn U.S. hero Joe Gaetjens (Jimmy Jean-Louis), the Haitian-born striker who scored the goal that beat England, into a voodoo-spewing caricature on the order of Pedro Cerrano in Major League? For a film so concerned about getting the period details right, it's strange that the facts of the actual story are so fungible.

(Besides, if Gaetjens is meant simply to provide comic relief, we already get plenty of that, intentional or not, from Harkes' portrayal of Scottish-American Ed McIlvenny, which allows Harkesey to dust off his old brogue and say things like, "Horsepoppy, it is! Horsepoppy!")

Yet the most surprising flaw in GOTL is the filmmakers' failure to bring the U.S.-England game to a thundering emotional climax, which (judging from their previous work) should be right in their wheelhouse. Granted, it's harder to wring visceral emotion out of holding on for dear life after a 38th-minute goal (against the run of play, no less) than it is for, say, Jimmy Chitwood's state title-winning jumper in Hoosiers. By soccer's very nature, the final whistle brings relief more than exultation, even when it comes to upsets, which may explain why the re-creation of Gaetjens' goal is the game's only goosebump-inducing moment.
Then again, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised by this. Think about it: U.S. soccer fans don't ask where you were when the final whistle blew on the 3-2 upset over Portugal at the 2002 World Cup. They ask where you were when John O'Brien shocked everyone with his fourth-minute goal to draw first blood.
Other inconvenient facts make the 1950 story harder to tell than a film such as Miracle, last year's ode to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Unlike that movie, GOTL has to deal with a team that not only failed to win the championship, it also failed to win another World Cup game. (It must have been maddening to be a fan of the 1950 team, which squandered a 1-0 75th-minute lead to lose to Spain and botched a 2-2 second-half tie against winless Chile to lose 5-2 in a must-win first-round finale.) But you could also argue that those losses make the title of the movie all the more appropriate.

The Game of Their Lives certainly has some compelling performances (headlined by Butler as the goalkeeper Borghi), and it also has its share of other goosebump moments, not least when the film ends with a cameo of the five surviving members of the 1950 team: Bahr, Borghi, Harry Keough, Gino Pariani and John "Clarkie" Souza. They (and the teammates who are no longer with us) deserve a mass-market tribute to their remarkable achievement. I just wish the movie had been as flawless as that famous scoreline:

United States 1, England 0.


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