The Greatest Game Ever Played
Directed by Bill Paxton. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Stephen Dillane, Elias Koteas, Stephen Marcus, Josh Flitter, George Asprey, Justin Ashforth. (2005, PG, 120 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 30, 2005
Actor-turned-director Bill Paxton does an abrupt about-face from his violent directing debut, Frailty, to this period piece about the improbable but true triumph of a 19-year-old amateur American golfer at the 1913 U.S. Open. The title refers to what some consider to be the most phenomenal round of golf ever played, when the untested American Francis Ouimet (LaBeouf) faced off against two British titans, Harry Vardon (Dillane) and Ted Ray (Marcus) – one David vs. two Goliaths, as one reporter puts it. Indeed, even for golf neophytes, the match re-creation is as riveting as the sports pages billed it, but there’s a lot of pokey exposition to wade through first. Scripter Mark Frost (the Twin Peaks producer who also wrote the book upon which this golf film is based) devotes much time to the class issues at hand. At the time, golf was considered a game for gentlemen only; neither Vardon nor Ouimet, a former caddy, were to the manor born, and the discrimination they endured shaped the men – and the athletes – they became. But the dramatization of these issues – especially in Ouimet’s relationship with his disapproving father (played by Koteas) – repeatedly strikes the same chord, with diminishing returns. (And as class is such a primary concern, it’s curious then that Frost never explains how Ouimet, the son of an immigrant day laborer, knows how to waltz and lives with his family in seeming middle-class comfort.) Paxton shows perhaps too much restraint in the film’s overlong first half, but the pace considerably quickens once the Open kicks off. LaBeouf, tamping down his loosey-goosey charm to play dramatic leading man, gains a sparring partner in the form of a stout, ballsy fifth-grader-turned-caddy named Eddie Lowery (Flitter). Eddie’s somewhat of a stock Disney character, but after so much somberness, his comic scowlings provide exactly the kind of kick in the pants The Greatest Game so needs. Paxton and DP Shane Hurlbut also inject into the game some inspired visual touches, including a quartet of top-hatted gentlemen who embody Vardon’s class-related inner demons and appear, phantomlike, at clutch moments. The Greatest Game never thrills on an emotional level the way the best of sports films – a Hoosiers, say – can, but it’s a satisfying entertainment nonetheless.