Thomas Carter's When the Game Stands Tall might be based on the true story of the longest winning streak in football history, but the movie feels much more like a calculated ode to "traditional values" than real life. Jim Caviezel stars as Bob Ladouceur, the coach of the De La Salle Spartans, a high-school football team in California that are seen clinching another sectional championship and extending a long winning streak to 151 victories in the film's opening scene. With the help of his loyal assistant coach Terry (Michael Chiklis), Bob has led more than a decade of defeat-free football by molding teens into selfless soldiers who learn the concepts of sacrifice, discipline, and self-control -- both at his practices and in his Bible study class, where he hammers home the importance of giving "perfect effort."
However, Bob suffers a heart attack during the off-season, and learns from his ever-supportive wife (Laura Dern) that he's drifting away from his eldest son because he spends more time with his team than his own family. Additionally, the latest group of incoming starters all face serious personal adversity: Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), for example, is on the verge of setting the state record for career touchdowns, but might be driven to the breaking point by a selfish, demanding father (Clancy Brown).
Between the emotional fallout from a teammate's murder, bickering among the players, and their coach being out of commission for much of the off-season, the Spartans proceed to lose their first two games of the new season, and must regroup in order to prepare for a confrontation with a talented and physically larger team from Cal Poly. All the while, they deal with their new reputation as the players responsible for ending De La Salle's historic streak.
Scott Marshall Smith's screenplay continually insults our intelligence by utilizing one of the most artless forms of voice-over -- sports announcers who provide information that is often repeated by one of the characters. During the climactic game, Chris is three TDs away from setting the record, and when he scores his first one, the announcer tells us this. Carter then cuts to Chris' dad in the stands as he yells "two more!" -- just in case you can't do math -- and then the announcer repeats the information yet again. Smith does this so often he must think the audience for this film is either stupid or asleep.
Caviezel plays Bob as entirely humorless, as if he's afraid a wisp of a smile might wipe away the mask of determined righteousness that represents both the character and the picture. He and the movie hit the same emotional note over and over again, and it's incredibly boring.
At one point, Bob takes the players to a VA hospital to learn about genuine perseverance and teamwork, and this underscores the film's subtext: The Spartans are a stand-in for a 21st century America that's dealing with economic woes and war fatigue. If we could only get back to fearing God, if men were selfless and women supported them no matter what, then the team -- and by extension the United States -- would be great again.
Throw in scenes of the team praying together and some genuinely uncomfortable racial stereotypes (the African-American players are either depicted as egotistical showboats or shot dead), and When the Game Stands Tall quickly reveals itself to be not a tale of resilience and perseverance, but a reactionary and painfully obvious piece of product designed to sell tickets to an audience already sure that there's nothing better than God and football.