The Greatest Game Ever Played
Directed by Bill Paxton (Frailty) from the eponymous book by Mark Frost, The Greatest Game Ever Played takes us into the familiar “based on a true story” brand of Disney movie (The Rookie, Miracle). The movie centers around two characters: young prodigy Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf), who has the bearing of a young Russell Crowe; and defending British Open champion Harry “The Stylist” Vardon (Stephen Dillane). Francis, from a working class family and flanked by his 10 year old caddy (Josh Flitter), finds himself competing against his idol in the 1913 U.S. Open.
The movie slightly suffers from a repetitive feel, though that has to be expected since the movie is attempting to derive drama and tension out of rounds of golf. Unlike, say football, golf is a more cerebral game and not particularly big screen friendly. As with any sports based movie, the movie is about more than the game, but about the characters who play it. Paxton does a wonderful job of juggling a cast of characters, painting their stories in a few deft brush strokes. Though he does go for a few too many cinematic flourishes (the distracting close up on a ladybug of all things and going to the well of following the ball too many times) and other such camera tricks prove a little distracting, breaking the illusion and drawing us out of the movie. On the other hand, some of the special effects, like Harry blocking out everything except the hole, are quite effective. The lesson learned here: a little CGI goes a long way.
“Even in our darkest hour, we must remember to never despair.” -Harry Vardon
The movie is surprisingly layered, weaving a series of themes for such a simple, on the surface, movie: Americans vs. British, privileged vs. the working class, father vs. son, young vs. old, their lot in life vs. daring to dream, and ghosts of the past vs. their present reality. Francis has to unlearn the lessons of his father, Arthur Ouimet (Elias Koteas), who often preached that “A man knows his place and makes his peace with it.” And it struck me how often people are afraid to dream of a better reality for themselves, content to stay where they are. In "The Weight of Glory," C. S. Lewis writes, "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." Sometimes it takes a game to show us the way.
“He has a God-given talent and this is his chance to give voice to it.” -Mary Ouimet (Marnie McPhail)
We all have gifts, callings. When you’re doing what you’re meant to do–as Francis noted of an opera singer’s voice after attending a performance–“it comes through her from somewhere else.” He tried to deny his gift because of a promise to his father and it made him miserable. The hollowness of what his life had become was evident, all the joy removed from him, because he wasn’t doing what he was created to be doing. The important thing is to know for whom you are playing.
“A game doesn’t give a man what he needs to build a life.” -Arthur Ouimet
Golf is a game of gentlemen, in this case, gentlemen being defined as the old money types that belong to country clubs and the like. It was the great philosopher Groucho Marx that said “I’d never belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member.” Many people see the church as a country club, echoing one characters thoughts about their own country club that “You may have been invited, but don’t get the idea that you belong.” The country club’s “gentlemen”–these guardians of tradition, prestige, and position (Pharisees by another name)–miss the point of their mission. It is not the club that is the end in and of itself, after all the point of the club is not to build the club, it is the love of the game. Like God’s kingdom, the game embraces all who want to play it, rich and poor alike.
The Greatest Game Ever Played is a heart-warming family movie (this is a Disney film) that reminds us that if we dare to dream, we can succeed because of who we are, not because of our lot in life. That's not a bad message to remember.