The Game of Their Lives

game of their lives

The 2014 World Cup is in full swing and Americans are abuzz with characteristic optimism about their chances, again. So now would be the time to revisit the 1950 U.S. team’s stunning 1-0 victory against England at the last World Cup hosted by Brazil. It’s a real life underdog story ripe for retelling, and David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo, the pair behind sports classics Hoosiers and Rudy, give it the big screen treatment. They fumble this one, though not as badly as Spain, and take an inspiring blueprint then drain it of color and excitement.

Like their previous efforts, The Game of Their Lives is rooted in Midwestern heroes – our lads hail from the great city of St. Louis (said with hometown pride) – who overcome the odds. One big difference and a major handicap, however, is that the movie lacks an identifiable protagonist, someone on whom the audience can readily project these underdog sentiments. It may be a testament to the democratic spirit of America that the film should remain focused on the team rather than any individual; or it could be poor storytelling.

Anspaugh and Pizzo do highlight several players from the 1950 squad, most of whom came from the Italian section of St. Louis called the Hill. Frank Borghi (Gerard Butler) gets the most screentime as a skilled keeper and de facto leader while Gino Pariani (Louis Mandylor) and Charlie Colombo (Costas Mandylor) add some working class heft. They make a likable team, but not much happens dramatically to anchor their characters. Frank doesn’t want to join the family business and be an undertaker for the rest of his life and Gino’s upcoming wedding conflicts with the World Cup. The experience of serving in the war also weighs heavily on a few players, who find refuge in soccer. These could easily be recurrent issues. Instead, such concrete personal dramas are quickly dispensed with or ignored in favor of a broader ill-defined struggle.

The St. Louis boys must first try out for the national team, and personalities clash when the waspy east coasters, led by Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley), blaze in with their fancy uniforms and college education. For awhile, the movie shifts into a cultural clash as the rough, parochial St. Louis players butt heads with the New Englanders, who favor a more streamlined style of play. Bahr’s not the primary foe though; he’s American after all. Team USA must put their differences aside if they have any hopes of beating their biggest enemies – England, personified by its smug captain, Stanley Mortensen (Gavin Rossdale), and national apathy.

At this point, the movie pivots again into the film that Anspaugh and Pizzo might have wanted all along. Love of game and country meld into one as the sport becomes a stirring testament to American values. A wise local tells one of the players, “You wanna know why soccer is the world’s greatest sport?…All you need is a ball and an open space. You don’t need fancy equipment and special fields; you don’t have to be big or strong or tall. It’s the most democratic of all sports, the people’s game.” Frank adds, “No one knows who we are, no one expects anything from us. Deep down, we know we’re a little more than that.” How American, to think that everyone’s the underdog and that we’ve all got a fighting chance.

Such inspiring words, at least to a home audience, are all this movie every really amounts to, however. Even the presence of John Rhys-Davies and Patrick Stewart in the lackluster roles of the coach and a reporter help little. Anspaugh also fails to deliver visuals that capture the grittiness and desperation of competition, something he did so well in his previous films. The climactic game between the U.S. and England was shot on location in Brazil but might as well have been an intramurals match played at a municipal field. If we want a rousing, exhilarating World Cup atmosphere, let’s just all watch the World Cup.

Alt Title: The Miracle Match
Prod: Howard Baldwin, Karen Elise Baldwin, Greg Johnson
Dir: David Anspaugh
Writer: Angelo Pizzo
Cast: Gerard Butler, Wes Bentley, Jay Rodan, Gavin Rossdale, Costas Mandylor, Louis Mandylor, Zachary Ty Bryan, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Richard Jenik, Nelson Vargas, Nino Da Silva, John Harkes, Bill Smitrovich, Terry Kinney, Patrick Stewart, John Rhys-Davies
Time: 101 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014