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"An inspiring homage to the men who changed and continue to change the face of the game."
"The writing seems a bit off, failing to elevate the story and the performances to their potential."
"Enough enthusiasm, authenticity, and spirited soccer play to offset the missing ingredients."
The Game of Their Lives  

Cast

Walter Bahr: Wes Bentley
Joe Maca: Richard Jenik INTERVIEW
Frank Borghi: Gerard Butler
Walter Giesler: Craig Hawksley
Pee Wee Wallace: Jay Rodan
Joe Gaetjens: Jimmy Jean-Louis
Coach Bill Jeffrey: John Rhys-Davies
Review May 2005

Due to the efforts of Bora Milutinovic, Kyle Rote, Jr., Paul Caligiuri, and most recently, Brian McBride and Landon Donovan, soccer in the United States has gotten some respect over the years. But that wasn't always the case. In 1950, when the United States was invited to partake in the World Cup in Brazil, they had no respect, no team, and no chance. Directed by David Anspaugh and written by Angelo Pizzo, the dynamic duo that brought about "Hoosiers" and "Rudy," "The Game of Their Lives" is a tribute to the 1950 U.S. soccer team, a rag tag bunch that shocked the world by defeating England, the all around favorite, at the World Cup tournament. And the film version honors this experience, casting likable characters, maintaining historical accuracy, and capturing convincing game play. Although at times, it struggles to build momentum, "The Game of Their Lives" remains an inspiring homage to the men who changed and continue to change the face of the game.

In 1950, the only place in the United States where you could find soccer was in the small communities, neighborhoods filled with working class immigrants, and colleges very familiar with the world's most popular sport. Neighborhoods like "the Hill" in St. Louis, an Italian-American suburb where the likes of Frank Borghi, Harry Keough, Gino Pariani, Pee Wee Wallace, and Charles "Gloves" Colombo would play. It was during this time that the United States was given a special invitation - to participate in the World Cup tournament in Brazil, an international tournament held every four years matching the world's greatest soccer teams. But the only problem was that the United States didn't have a legitimate team. And expenses were tight. Thus, under the guidance of coach Bill Jeffrey and general manager Walter Giesler, a single tryout was held in St. Louis in the hopes of finding the nation's best. And the best, they found. And not just players from St. Louis and the East Coast, but also immigrant players from Haiti, Portugal, and Scotland.

With only ten days to prepare, the team began searching for an identity. A cross-section of race, ethnicity, and religion, there was much adversity to overcome in order to unify the team. But alas, every ounce of progress was negated by England's runner up squad, which along with soccer phenom Stan Mortensen put a horrendous drubbing on team U.S.A. in pre-tournament play. Still, the team managed to fight through their doubts as both Walter Bahr and Frank Borghi mended the differences. Leaving behind wives and girlfriends, jobs and families, they arrived in Brazil, greeted with cheers. And it was this surprising atmosphere that bled into their confrontation with top seeded England. Energized by the crowd and their unwavering patriotism, the U.S. stifled England's attack led by Mortensen and Billy Wright, the world's finest. And against all odds, this rag tag bunch held on in an upset that would forever change the way soccer was viewed in the United States.

On June 19, 1950, the U.S. World Cup team defeated England's highest ranked team, 1-0, in front of a roaring Brazilian crowd. And the film's depiction of the game and the events leading up to it are genuine. Sparing no expense to portray the game and the times with authenticity, the film makes use of custom leather soccer balls, heavy cotton knits and outdated fabrics for uniforms and socks, and high top leather cleats where the cleats were actually screwed into the soles of the shoes. More importantly, director David Anspaugh and his crew insisted the film be shot on location on "the Hill" in St. Louis and the areas around Rio de Janeiro to stay true to the story's origins. And visually, it helps capture the spirit of St. Louis and the samba of South America. On top of that, they made a casting decision similar to that of "Miracle," whereby many of the actors were selected for their soccer experience to heighten the realism of the game. Using All-American, semi-pro, and professional soccer players such as Costas Mandylor, John Harkes (recently elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame), Richard Jenik, Nelson Vargas, and Nino Da Silva, "The Game of Their Lives" ensures accuracy and athleticism.

Without a doubt, you can feel the goodwill, the good intent, and the obligation to explain the sport's significance. Remarks one of Pee Wee's admirers: "It's the most democratic of all the sports. The people's game. Your people's game. And America's game in the future." The film even reunites the surviving members of the team for a fond farewell and a side-by-side comparison with the actors who portrayed them.

But in spite of its good intentions and the tremendous amount of detail, the writing seems a bit off, failing to elevate the story and the performances to their potential. Adapted from Geoffrey Douglas' book of the same title, "The Game of Their Lives" appears hesitant, as if uncertain of its course. It first introduces Dent McSkimming, the only U.S. reporter to cover the team, who narrates the story but makes you wonder how close he was to the actual events, the camaraderie, and the player's daily lives. And then it quickly shifts focus from player to player - Frank Borghi and his family's funeral business, Gino Pariani and his impending wedding, Pee Wee and his fear of flying, etc. Eventually, when the St. Louis group meets their East coast counterparts, the development stops, alternating between a variety of subplots that materialize far too quickly - the recruiting of Haitian born soccer player, Joe Gaetjeans; the injection of Stan Mortensen, a potential villain who is relegated to one scornful speech; and Gino Pariani's pursuit of Team USA uniforms. While these stories are interesting alone, when combined, they present a disruption to the flow of the film, watering it down instead of supplementing it.

If you ask me, every great sports movie has to have a focal point - a player or a coach that inspires us, motivates us, and lifts our spirits, encouraging us to empathize with their situation. Norman Dale, Rocky Balboa, Herb Brooks, Daniel Ruettiger, Brian Piccolo, Lou Gehrig, just to name a few. These main characters drive their films, giving them purpose and poise, while the rest of the team and/or characters are developed in the background for moral support. The concept is so integral to the genre that it's blatantly apparent when absent. Yet, this quintessential piece is missing from "The Game of Their Lives," a film that develops many interesting supporting characters, but lacks a standout role to bring them all together. While the characters of Walter Bahr and Frank Borghi are attributed fatherly status, they are given such status without substantiation. And even more noticeable is the lack of involvement from their coach, who inexplicably demonstrates distance and disinterest. Thus, without leadership, intensity, and determination, there can be no emotional reward when victory is achieved.

Sadly, I must also report a tremendous loss to the musical world, the loss of Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith passed away last year at the onset of this film, unable to complete the score. It was a devastating loss, as his work helped shape the motion picture orchestral landscape for the last 30 years. Always one to push the boundaries of music, Goldsmith became one of the most prolific composers of all time, writing such amazing scores as "Patton," "Chinatown," "Star Trek," and the frightful, Academy Award winning score, "The Omen." Most notably, Goldsmith wrote the magically uplifting themes for "Hoosiers" and "Rudy." And one can only imagine how much this film would have benefited had Jerry applied his musical touch.

All in all, "The Game of Their Lives" is an interesting look at a pivotal moment in U.S. soccer history that may be unfamiliar to most. Although the writing weighs the film down with curt dialogue and choppy character arcs, and the story lacks a true lead, there is enough enthusiasm, authenticity, and spirited soccer play to offset the missing ingredients. And sometimes that's all it takes. This is an important story, one worth noting and observing. Especially since it took the U.S. roughly 40 years later to return to World Cup competition. Change takes time. And even though soccer may not yet rank above baseball, football, or basketball in the States, it's encouraging to watch and observe its humble and heroic beginnings.



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