“The Greatest Game Ever Played” is based on a book … which is based on a true story … which happened in 1913. It’s a PG film that could pass as a G, and you may not recognize most of the actors.
Whether these are positives or negatives in your book, “Greatest Game” is time well spent at the movies. This Disney film is sure to earn a place alongside other favorites like “The Rookie,” “Remember the Titans,” “Miracle,” “Hoosiers” or “Seabiscuit.”
“Greatest Game” tells the story of Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf), a young man from an immigrant family who overcomes classism to compete for the U.S. Open title in 1913. Ouimet must defeat not only social prejudices, but also British champion Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane).
Bill Paxton, best known for acting (“Apollo 13,” “Twister,” “Titanic”), has a directorial vision that’s spot-on for this Disney picture. His movie glides gently along on the script by Mark Frost, who wrote the book that salvaged this legend from history’s dustbin.
Paxton makes “Greatest Game” not only visually stimulating—with special effects shots of golf balls whizzing down fairways, through tree limbs and across greens—but emotionally involving as well. While Francis’ relationships with his father (Elias Koteas) and love interest (Peyton List) may strike some as clichéd or sentimental, they nevertheless serve their purpose, which is to make us feel.
One of the film’s strengths is the relationship between Francis and Vardon—the amateur and the professional. Paxton takes pains to bond them together not necessarily over their love of the game, but over their similar struggles to be accepted by the “gentlemen” who control the game’s clubs and tournaments.
In fact, the film begins with a young Harry Vardon on England’s Isle of Jersey in 1879. His home is about to be pushed aside for—what else?—a golf links. And as audiences will see, golf has a way of both fostering and restraining life for Vardon.
By the time Francis and Vardon meet on the fairways at the U.S. Open, both have proven their commitment to sportsmanship, honor and respect. It’s not easy to make a movie whose two central characters—who are in opposition to each other—remain good people. But Paxton has done it, and the result is refreshing. You like them both, and you are treated to decency among the skilled.
Paxton shares credit for that with LaBeouf and Dillane. LaBeouf (star of “Holes”) slips nicely into a more mature role here, and Dillane as Vardon is just marvelous onscreen. There’s also Josh Flitter as Eddie Lowery, the pint-sized caddy who helps Francis keep his cool, in addition to providing comic relief.
Paxton plays the showdown between Francis and Vardon as a sort of Western on the links, and the approach, buoyed by a jaunty score from Brian Tyler, works.
Like Ron Howard’s recent “Cinderella Man,” if you don’t already know the story’s outcome, don’t read up before buying your ticket. Just go. Experience the competition, the tension, the suspense.
“The Greatest Game Ever Played” is a terrific film that everyone can enjoy.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for some brief, mild language. Reviewer’s Note: I don’t play or follow golf, but this film is a lot of fun.
Director: Bill Paxton
Writer: Mark Frost (based on his book)
Cast: Francis Ouimet: Shia LaBeouf; Harry Vardon: Stephen Dillane; Eddie Lowery: Josh Flitter; Ted Ray: Stephen Marcus; Arthur Ouimet: Elias Koteas; Mary Ouimet: Marnie McPhail; Lord Northcliffe: Peter Firth; Sara Wallis: Peyton List.
The movie’s official Web site is here.