Keep Your Head Down

In "The Greatest Game Ever Played," Shia LaBeouf plays gofer-turned-golfer Francis Ouimet, who in winning the 1913 U.S. Open upset the status quo. (By Jonathan Wenk)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 30, 2005

Oh the bitterness of the Baltimoreans who file into "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and discover to their horror it's not about the 1958 Colts' overtime win against the Giants.

Likewise, those poor folks in San Diego sure it has to be about the double-overtime victory in which Kellen Winslow caught 13 passes and blocked a field goal and almost won single-handedly against Miami in 1982.

Don't think you're immune, Washington. How many of you will think it's about the great Riggo's 43-yard run to daylight, glory and happy endings in the fourth quarter of the 1983 Super Bowl, again leaving a broken phalanx of cursing Dolphins in the dust.

And we won't even talk about the 1969 Mets, the 2004 Red Sox or the 1945 Cubs -- or the 1964 Illinois state track meet.

But no, it isn't about any of those great games. "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is about golf.

Golf? Isn't that a "match"? You may have a game, and you take lessons to improve your game, but you play a "match" in golf, am I right? Or is that tennis?

Anyhow, one supposes "The Greatest Match Every Played" wouldn't quite have the draw power that "Game" does, even if the movie turns out to be set in 1913.

In that year, a 19-year-old amateur who worked in a sporting goods store and was served by a 10-year-old caddie who could have been the original model for Spanky in "Our Gang" beat the best the world had to offer in a killer U.S. Open in Brookline, Mass. It went to the final few greens in a Monday playoff, and the kid held true, putted firmly, exiled his fears and watched the hole suck the ball into its maw and in that one instant, felt glory, maybe even the touch of a deity's favor. And, though no one could have guessed it then, it was a harbinger of basically good things to come in athletics -- that is, the democratization, the opening of the game, match, set or scrum to men of a certain talent, not of a certain class. It would take some more time before certain ethnicities were added to the calculation, and even longer for certain colors, but we wouldn't be where we are today -- a place where the best -- whatever his bloodline and whatever his connections -- wins. And that, of course, is why we love sports.

So maybe it begins with the spindly, chipper Francis Ouimet (played by Shia LaBeouf), a French Canadian scuffler who spent his youth as a caddie at Brookline Country Club (he lived next door) and picked the game up on the sly when he wasn't shagging balls for swells who still played in coat and tie while smoking pipes. And for four days in 1913, he had the heart of a lion, the guts of a burglar, the will of a Tiger and the final sureness of touch of a poet. It may have been -- again, opinions, clouded by loyalties and memories, will vary -- the biggest upset in the history of sports.

It's such a great story, you have to ask two questions: Why didn't they make this movie before? And why did they make it this way?

No one knows the answer to the first question, unless it's a combination of shortness of memory and the lack of a broad-based demographic to support a golf movie until Tiger came along. As for the second question, the only person who knows is the director, Bill Paxton, the genial Texas-bred character actor and almost-star ("Twister" was as close as he got) who somehow got this assignment from the Mouse Factory on the strength of his one other job, a murky horror thriller called "Frailty."

His answer would have to be: because I had to give you something you couldn't get on television. That is, I had to cram in every new computer technique so I could actually penetrate the physics of the game and so you feel as if you're watching the action from dimple No. 239 on the Vardon Flyer as it rotates through the air in quest of a green on which to impact or a hole in which to disappear. Alas, after all the whooshing and ball-riding and sliding, the sensation is akin to that of being locked on a Tilt-a-Whirl hijacked by a drunken meth addict. Aghhh.

The story is so classic. Who needed interior decoration like that slathered onto architecture as solid as a plot invented by David one day in the year 1025 B.C. or so when he faced a big dude with a bad attitude named Goliath? That's the story, if you look beyond all the amusement park-style golf ball rides.

The actors seem to get this as well. LaBeouf is low-key and doesn't have that young star's hunger for the camera. He's pleasant, passable and not at all charismatic, which seems to fit the modest, humble, noble brave young Francis. Come on, David shouldn't be played by a face man with smoldering sexuality but an Everyboy type, and that's what LaBeouf brings to the role. But Stephen Dillane, who plays the great British golfer Harry Vardon, is pretty much the whole story. Dillane's Vardon, who'd won the Open 13 years earlier, was then considered the greatest golfer in the world; he was sent to the United States by a powerful newspaper magnate to teach the rowdy Colonials a lesson in humility. The film makes it clear that Vardon was a decent enough man, himself haunted by class issues. He was not an aristo either, and at some level resented being used to advance a class interest for people who considered him not good enough to join them (the metaphor for class the film uses is membership in a certain country club). Dillane is solid in conveying Vardon's doubleness: his sense of duty to a system that he knew was unfair and that excluded him.

That would have been enough. Unfortunately the script by Mark Frost (who also produced, and wrote the book upon which the movie is based), as abetted by Paxton, goes in for too much psycho-heartthrob silliness, seeing golf not as a sport but as a generational arena where the players' true opponents aren't each other or the sand trap on the 14th that snares with silken greed your approach every damned time, but their fathers who didn't love enough or didn't believe enough or didn't provide enough. Please. No human boy has a perfect dad any more than any human dad has a perfect son. Most grown-ups come to realize that, but nobody affiliated with this overloaded movie appears to have figured it out.

The Greatest Game Ever Played (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for brief, mild profanity.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company