When 20-year-old American amateur Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBoef, Constantine) won the U.S. Open golf tournament in 1913 against the greatest professional player in the world, Englishman Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane, King Arthur), journalists on both sides of the Atlantic called it “the greatest game ever played.” The Disney movie about the famous competition — a beautifully told David vs. Goliath tale — may very well be the greatest golf movie ever made. Appealing to both adults and children, it’s also the best realistic family movie so far this year.
The Greatest Game, not unlike the true story that inspired it, is the triumph of the wealth of experience combined with the enthusiasm of the beginner. The script, written by veteran scribe Mark Frost (co-creator of TV’s Twin Peaks) and based on his own book, shows the perks of mature writing: pointed dialogue, fully realized characters and deeply layered scenes. First-time director Bill Paxton uses a slew of visual devices to dramatize the often elusive details of the game: fascinating shots from the perspective of the ball, slow motion that delineates the exquisite grace of players’ swings, and close-ups of the different ways players gripped their clubs, sighted their drives, stood their ground and quieted their minds from the distraction of thousands of people staring at them.
“The golfing in the movie was very believable,” says Joe Stephenson, a golf pro at Practice Tee in East Asheville. “You could really see what goes into making a golf champion. Especially good was the depiction of the ‘mental chatter’ that all golfers have — and have to conquer.”
The clever opening montage immediately transports viewers back in time. In the early part of the 20th century, golf pros, who generally came from the lower classes and often from Scotland, were looked down upon by amateurs, who pretended to disdain mere lucre. Even in so-called classless America, some pros weren’t allowed to use a golf course’s facilities. “It’s good to be reminded what a stodgy old game it was,” Stephenson comments.
Being an amateur didn’t guarantee acceptance, however. As Ouimet was coldly reminded on the eve of his great victory, “You may have been invited, but don’t get the idea you belong here.” In competitions between pros and amateurs, an amateur could walk away with the trophy, but only the pros could take any prize money.
What elevates The Greatest Game beyond the sports-movie category are the human stories: the strained relationship Ouimet has with his French/Canadian father (Elias Koteas), who hates his son’s ambitions, and his Irish mother (Marnie McPhail), who secretly encourages him; the beautiful heiress (Peyton List) who inspires him; the powerful men who thwart and ridicule him; the few mentors who see his promise and help him.
The most empathetic story, especially for children, is the relationship between Ouimet and his caddy. A caddy is the only person allowed to give a player advice during competition, making caddies crucial to a golfer’s success. Not having the cachet to get an experienced caddy or any money to pay one, Ouimet ended up with the most unique caddy of the tournament — the fast-talking and loyal Eddie Lowrey (Josh Flitter), who happened to be 10 years old. Spouting technical advice and brilliant sports psychology, the pint-sized caddy turned out to be Ouimet’s good luck charm.
In the end, The Greatest Game is about much more than a game played long ago. As one smiling viewer said on the way out of the theater after the movie, “I like to see a movie about the little guy who makes it when the whole deck is stacked against him.” Rated PG for some brief mild language.
– reviewed by Marci Miller