Upon receiving The Greatest Game Ever Played to review, I rolled my eyes in despair and muttered "Oh crap, a freakin' golf movie!" I don't have anything against golf as a game, I just don't want to watch it, and I certainly wouldn't normally want to watch a movie about this sport. I figured Caddyshack is the only movie about golf we will ever need. I was wrong.
The Greatest Game Ever Played is based on the true story of poor kid Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) who challenges one of the great legends of the game, British champion Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), during the U.S. Open of 1913. Francis has lived near a golf course all of his life and has a job as a caddy, but this movie takes place back in the days where people still judged others on the basis of whether or not their ancestors crossed on the Mayflower, so Francis faces much prejudice when he tries to compete. He spends all his free time practicing, and a few members and fellow employees of the club he works for have open minds enough to recognize his talent and offer to sponsor him so he can play.
Despite a slow start, I ended up ultimately charmed by this movie. Francis and Harry are technically antagonists, but like true sport, their competition is not good versus evil. While Harry is by no means poor he comes from a poor background and despite his great success he will never be considered a "gentleman". He sees himself in Francis and winds up admiring the young upstart while fighting against him to his utmost ability. The true antagonism in this movie comes from both characters battling with the Establishment's disdain of poor people, and Francis battling with his father (Elias Koteas) who wants his son to give up the game and "learn his place". But his father isn't some one-dimensional bad guy either: he loves his son and simply doesn't want him to get hurt. I ended up truly liking the all the main characters.
And I'm most impressed by Mark Frost's screenplay and Bill Paxton's direction. Most of the movie takes place during the U.S. Open, and I was drawn in by the action. These guys made me watch a serious movie about golf, and actually enjoy it! It takes skill to bring tension to a scene that features a 3-foot putt. It also didn't hurt that Paxton got solid to outstanding performances from all his actors. If I have any gripes like I said it started slow, and some time was wasted with scenes between Francis and an upper-class woman he befriends (Peyton List). By the end of the movie their relationship is unimportant. I got a big kick out of Francis' friendship with his 10 year-old caddie Eddie (Josh Flitter) and would have liked to have seen more of their give and take as the Open proceeds.
Any DVD that comes with an insert with the chapter titles printed on it will automatically get an extra star from me from now on just because most don't anymore, but this one does. The movie itself has good sound and picture. It's a very rare case where these features are bad any more unless you buy from a street vendor (you might also get the extra treat of head silhouettes bobbing around on the bottom of the picture). But I digress - this movie features 2 commentaries, one from Bill Paxton and the other from Mark Frost. Both men are articulate and director Paxton spends his time discussing his choices in how he filmed the movie (and generously praising just about everyone who had a hand in making the film, which is a nice non-egotistical touch) while Frost talks about the differences between the movie and the book as well as rounding out the story. The commentaries may have benefitted from being combined because both fill in time by narrating the scenes but that's a small nitpick.
The DVD also sports (pun intended) a look at the making of the movie and two featurettes on Francis Ouimet, one made for the DVD and the other an old black and white documentary filmed when Ouimet was still alive. These featurettes would probably appeal to the die-hard golfing enthusiast more than the ordinary viewer but I love it when the people who produce DVDs go out of the way to find worthwhile supplementary material.
Sports movies generally aren't my thing, except for baseball movies and I freely admit Major League is my favorite so take my opinions of such with a grain of salt. But I really enjoyed the Greatest Game Ever Played, and I think anyone who loves golf or sports in general will too. I also think this is a great movie for young teenagers, because this movie is about true sportsmanship, and being a gentleman is not based on your ancestors, but based on behaving like one. In these days of cursing, fighting, and drug testing it's a lesson children (and their win-at-any-cost parents) could use.