The Greatest Game Ever Played had all the reasons in the world to be yet another tired “underdog wins it all” sports cliché films. The Disney sports formula, after all, is tried and true – and predictable. But leave it to director Bill Paxton to up the ante and deliver a wholly enjoyable study of perhaps the greatest golf upset of all time. In the wrong hands, this could have been a downright preachy groaner.
Francis Ouimet (LeBeouf) comes from a working class family, the exact kind of upbringing that does not allow you to set foot on a golf course in 1913. Since his childhood he has been avidly fascinated with golf, and his idol is the great English champ, Harry Vardon (Dillane). Francis practices puts in the middle of the night, hoping that someday he will be a champion. Francis’ father, Arthur (Koteas), wants him to quit his dream because of the class struggles involved with this “gentleman’s game.”
As a caddy at the golf course across the street from his home, Francis is approached to compete as an amateur, much to his father’s malaise. Francis agrees to his father’s wishes that if he loses, he must quit golf altogether. Francis misses the cut, and soon thereafter takes up work at a retail establishment.
At age twenty, Francis is once again approached to compete, but this time it is against the best in the world in the U.S. Open. With class struggles and the friction between the U.S. and Europe at the forefront of a politically charged event, Francis makes a run for the ages and cements his name in golf lore.
Director Bill Paxton brings a great sense of authenticity to the material and knows just the right chords to strike – and when to strike them. He approaches the 1913 U.S. Open from several vantage points, and the result is above-average character development for a story arc that is, at its core, tired and overdone. Paxton showed amazing skill in the under-appreciated 2001 film, Frailty, and here he does the same in a completely different genre. Some may have issues with the deliberately slow pace in the film’s first act and questionable use of CGI (was the ladybug on the ball really necessary?), but overall this is a solid effort and one that propels the film past its counterparts of the past few years.
I have been impressed with Shia LeBeouf ever since 2003’s The Battle of Shaker Heights, and he continues to impress here. LeBeouf brings just the right amount of youthful excitement to the role of Francis, but is also wise beyond his years in the way he presents himself. This is his most complex role to date, and he nails it. Standout supporting work is delivered by Stephen Dillane as Vardon, a well-loved but troubled man who is haunted by his past. Dillane gives the character several wonderful layers and as a result we get a refreshing break from the one-note “bad guy” that usually riddles Disney sports films. Josh Flitter will be the favorite among the youngsters as Eddie, the wisecracking fifth grade caddy that Francis enlists. His role is well-written, and he may be the only character in the film unshaken by the whole class system. Elias Koteas is virtually unrecognizable as Francis’ father, but he gets one of the most emotional scenes in the film and sells it with no dialogue.
The Greatest Game Ever Played is a wonderful ode to a true underdog. It’s easy to write off films like this these days, but I urge doubters to give it a chance as it truly is a well-told and well-directed film. Francis Ouimet is a name that hardly anyone will know going into the film, but I hope that afterwards just as many people will have the same respect for what he did as I do now.
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
Length: 120 Minutes
Rating: PG for some brief mild language.
Theatrical Release: September 30, 2005
Directed by: Bill Paxton
Written by: Mark Frost. Based upon the novel by Frost of the same name.
Cast: Shia LeBeouf, Stephen Dillane, Josh Flitter, Peyton List, Elias Koteas, Marnie McPhail