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Alex Stroup, editor

The Greatest Game Ever Played

Another well-made sports movie from Disney

Friday, September 30, 2005
by Alex Stroup, MousePlanet editor

Sports movies frequently aren't much about sport. Sometimes they're about love, sometimes they're about politics; too often they're about grumpy old men rediscovering their inner-child as they bring a ragtag group of child underdogs together as a team and succeed against all odds.

The Greatest Game Ever Played is about sport. Distractions such as puppy love, parental love, and class envy are hinted at and flit around the edges of the story, but in the end aren't allowed to intrude upon the story, which is that of a young American amateur golfer playing in the 1913 U.S. Open against the best golfers in the world and doing better than anybody imagined possible.

With the focus so squarely on the golf tournament this is a movie that is going to bore many people, no matter how well made or acted. If you're a person who doesn't much understand the drama inherent in sports, or how people can actually watch golf on TV and get excited by what they're seeing, then this very likely isn't a movie for you. If catching the deep bass vocals of Harry Kalas means you know you'll be spending the next half-hour watching the NFL Films recap of last weeks Cardinals–Packers game, then this is certainly a movie for you.

Shia LaBeuof plays the young hero of the film: Francis Ouimet, the oldest son of French and Irish immigrant parents. They live across the street from The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, and Ouimet grows up making money as a caddy at a club that his low birth would never let him join. Self-taught in how to play the golf, Ouimet excels in the local school competitions and eventually catches the eye of the club pro and one of the members of the club.


© Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Under their endorsement, he begins to consider that he might actually be able to play at a higher level, despite the disapproving glare of his father, who feels that a person should know their place and that Francis will never have a place at country clubs and among gentlemen. When the 1913 U.S. Open is held in Brookline, the tournament director looks to add a young local amateur to the field, and all the pieces fall into place.

To the extent that outside issues are allowed to enter into this story, it is the issue of class and nationalism. At the 1912 U.S. Open, a natural-born American won the tournament for the first time and England was keen to keep all the important titles in the sport it (by way of Scotland) had invented. So a well-funded trio of the country's best golfers (one high-class amateur and two commoner professionals) were sent to overpower the weak American field.

1913 is not only a different era for golf (they played through any weather, and managed to swing golf clubs while wearing suit jackets), but it was also near the end of an era for sports as well. Back then, professional athletes were somewhat looked down upon. The ideal was a sort of gentleman athlete who performed not for money but out of a purer motivation of simple competition. In baseball around the same time, Christy Matthewson was making it acceptable for a gentleman to play for profit—and this U.S. Open made it acceptable for commoners to play in the halls of the elite. In England, Harry Vardon has lost this battle. He has won the British Open more times than any man but because of his low birth he can only accept the humiliation of being allowed to operate the pro shop at the countries top course.

When he is sent to America to reclaim the cup, he knows that he is just the lapdog of the elite but also simply loves the game and pure competition.

With the focus so firmly on the story of the golf game, the actors aren't really given much to do other than maintain their dignity, and they all do so. LaBeouf is trying to make the transition from child actor to adult as well as from television (Disney Channel's Even Stevens) to movies. His turn in Holes (2003) was very good, but since then he's been stuck in small parts in bad movies (Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Constantine, and I, Robot aren't going to put much shine on a resume). He isn't going to win any major awards with this performance, but he's solid and shows he is ready to be an adult.

The two more interesting characters are George Asprey as Wilfred Reid, Vardon's fellow professional and Elias Koteas as Francis's restrained father. Reid was apparently the John Daly of the early 1900s, a vulgar man who excels because he can hit the ball farther than anybody else. His refusal to simply knuckle under to the expectations of class makes him more interesting than Vardon's struggles with inner demons.

Koteas, almost unrecognizable under grime, stubble, and a thick French accent, is the mirror of the man who tells Francis that caddies can't play in U.S. Opens. So well conveyed is it that he discourages his son from golf out of love and not pettiness that he remains sympathetic.


© Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Josh Flitter wins points at Eddie, Francis's young caddie. Unfortunately the character is just a bit too smug and wise for his age and while the humor plays well, it doesn't really fit with the film.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Bill Paxton. Paxton doesn't appear in the film because he is the director. This isn't his directorial debut but it pretty much might as well be since nobody saw Frailty back in 2001. Paxton shows a calm steady hand, having the confidence to just tell a story without getting caught up in deeper meanings or rhetorical flourishes. He does make several missteps by inserting CGI in places it isn't needed (the most perplexing involving smoke rings and a snooker ball), and a couple moments of slow motion are so out of place I momentarily thought the projector was acting up.

Since more than half of the movie is actually spent with the characters playing golf, it isn't going to interest a lot of people no matter how well it is made. It is well made though, and worthy of consideration. It will help if you are unaware of the true story (and really, how many people know what happened at the 1913 U.S. Open?). That is one of the little geniuses of the film; it is a remarkable story no matter how the tournament ends, which prevents you from predicting the end with any certainty and maintaining the suspense.

Artisitic license was definitely invoked to make the game more interesting. It was said at the time that this particular U.S. Open may have been the greatest round of golf ever played. It seems unlikely that nearly a century later this is still true, but you'll leave the theater believing it was then and for a long time after.


Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


MOVIE DETAILS

The Greatest Game Ever Played is a Touchstone Pictures release.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.

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