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Game Film, No. 1: Remember the Titans

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Breaking down the X’s and O’s of the top 10 football movies of all time. At number one: The feel-good football movie of the summer.

We made it.

When I first envisioned this project, I saw it as a way to bridge the off-season. To fill the void of football on the field with football on the screen. The first installment in this series was posted on February 19th -- just two weeks after the final game of the 2018 season. Saturday, training camp finally started. The wait is over.

I’ve managed to distract myself from the abyss of a world without football. I hope I’ve done the same for a few of you.

But I digress. We’re here for a reason.

Remember the Titans topped this list for obvious reasons, and also less obvious reasons. Yes, it’s a great movie, though not my favorite. But I laid out a strict set of guidelines for this project, and I wasn’t about to stray now. This was not an exercise to find my favorite football movie, but to determine the best football movie.

The “best” includes everything -- from writing to directing to acting, to casting to music to cinematography. And of course, football. When considering all that, Remember the Titans wins. It is, hands down, the most entertaining, most affecting, most well-constructed football movie ever made.

Had there been more idiosyncratic criteria, like my taste for a more nuanced, less broad style which is less far-reaching in appeal but hits harder, it might have come in second. Had I considered the wide-ranging inaccuracies in its telling of the 1971 T.C. Williams Titans championship season, it might have fallen further than that.

But I’m not here to judge the filmmakers for why a story is or isn’t true, and I’m here to turn off that part of my brain and enjoy a good movie. Remember the Titans does that job very well, thank you very much. You don’t get 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes without being a crowd-pleaser.

On the face of it, this is a film is about race and football. But the underlying theme is about teamwork. It shows that to create a team, you must become as one, to see your teammates like brothers, to sublimate your ego for the good of the team. That sets a solid foundation for the movie, and the filmmakers’ milk maximum drama and emotion out of it.

Let’s break it all down. But first, the trailer:

MVP

Denzel Washington as Coach Herman Boone, the tough-as-nails African American coach brought in to lead a newly-integrated team in a racially-divided Virginia.

You don’t need me to tell you why Denzel is excellent. There’s a reason he’s a legend with close to a 100 percent approval rating. But he does manage to bring different aspects to every role, and the one he brings here is worth pointing out.

One of Denzel’s powers is his extreme likability, coming from natural charisma and the reservoir of goodwill he’s earned over the years. He brings likability and relatability to roles where it might not be on the page. Hell, I spent half of Training Day waiting for the reveal he was doing everything for a good reason before I realized, “Wait, he’s the bad guy!”

As Coach Boone, he’s often joyless and charmless. A tough coach who doesn’t have the time or patience to play around. He’s hard on his players and his coaches and might not be all that likable if not played by someone who’s almost impossible to dislike.

Key role players

Probably the most loaded this category has been. That’s due in part to a large ensemble cast, and also great casting, which found some very promising young actors headed for successful careers.

  • Will Patton as Coach Bill Yoast provides a great counterpoint to Coach Boone. The Yin to his Yang. Calm and reasonable, he takes his demotion to assistant coach in stride, does his job admirably, and handles it with class. Patton gives Yoast a quiet dignity and strength, which makes his arc — learning from Coach Boone while also teaching him a few things — both believable and rewarding.
  • Ryan Hurst as Gerry Bertier, the team captain and emotional leader of the team, has a lot of ground to cover. He’s part of the racist white faction of the team to start the film, changes to become a true leader by learning to be accepting through his blossoming friendship with Julius and then ends up a disabled person robbed of his football career. Hurst pulls off every step of the journey.
  • Wood Harris (the man who would be Avon Barksdale) as Julius Campbell, the leader of the African American faction on the Titans. The player who, along with Bertier, did the most to bring the team together. Their relationship forms the heart of the movie, and without both actors, at the top of their game, it wouldn’t fully work.
  • Ryan Gosling as the fictional Alan Bosley, who first loses his spot to a black player, then gives it away voluntarily because he knows it’s best for the team. It serves as the highlight for his character and his performance.
  • Donald Faison as Petey Jones, a character who provides both comic relief and a crucial on-field replacement for the Titans — as the recipient of Bosley’s generosity.
  • Ethan Suplee as Louie Lastik, the new kid from New Jersey, who adds more comedic relief and a sneaky amount of heart.
  • Kip Pardue as Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass. In a movie filled young actors filled with potential, it’s one who never lived up to the hype who makes the most memorable entrance.
  • Hayden Panettiere as the boisterous young daughter of Coach Yoast, Sheryl, who chooses football over dolls.
  • Cat Stevens, Marvin Gaye, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, The Temptations and everyone else on a great soundtrack. All movies lean on music to some extent, and this one really uses it to support the story it’s telling — both in the background and with characters singing on screen.

The opponent

Racism, mostly. There are a couple of moments when the team faces actual football problems, but mostly it’s about prejudice. At times, that’s mostly faceless -- a large group of protesters, a mindset, etc. Other times, it’s personified -- racist coaches, prejudiced teammates, disapproving parents. It’s omnipresent and adds tension and pressure on the individuals and the team as a whole.

Rookie of the year

Many seemingly strong candidates are ruled out by having too much experience. This was Gosling’s first U.S. movie, but he had 13 TV credits to his name. Hurst, Harris, and Faison had all been in high profile projects. Even the 10-year-old Panettiere had 13 prior credits, including three major movies.

So the choice is Kate Bosworth as Emma, Bertier’s pretty-on-the-outside, ugly-on-the-inside girlfriend. Emma didn’t rexist, but was needed to embody unrepentant racism to show that even someone like that can learn. The movie could have done a better job explaining the reasons behind Emma’s change instead of having her suddenly come around for no obvious reason, but you know Bosworth is good in the role because you hate her.

Key moment

I could easily pick the entire training camp sequence, and break down each and every crucial set-up, turning point, and meaningful moment, but that could take years and cost millions of lives. Instead, while I’ll look at a few crucial moments in the highlights section below, I’m going to single out one moment here. The most critical set-up, the biggest turning point, and the most memorable moment — even if, like a lot of the film, it never actually happened:

The highlights

  • The moment Coach Boone makes all his players get off the racially divided buses, and get back on divided only by offense and defense, with no racial component. Combining the races (both on the buses and their rooms) is the first step in disarming race as a divisive factor and forcing his players to see every teammate as a brother.
  • The relationship between Bertier and Campbell. Their fighting and friendship serve as a microcosm of the Titans, struggling with prejudice and change before coming together in harmony. And the scene at the Gettysburg College training camp where they start to hash out the issues between them is a key turning point in their arcs and that of the team.
  • Though the larger payoff for this scene doesn’t occur until the end of the movie, there is an immediate payoff in the next practice scene when Bertier takes Campbell’s words to heart and makes the key decision of the movie: choosing team over race.
  • The sequence where the Titans battle a tough team, crooked refs, a virulently racist opposing coach, and team in-fighting to win a playoff game.

The lowlight

My first instinct is to say the fact that most of the story is, well, just that — a story, rather than history. But there’s a whole section called “Realism,” so I’ll concentrate on artistic flaws here.

In that regard, there’s not much to criticize, except for a little extra schmaltz here and there. But what do you expect from a Disney sports movie? Still, they laid it on a little thick for me in the ending, and as I’ve pointed out before on this list, I’m not a huge fan of musical numbers in my football movies.

But again, this is Disney. If you’re looking for subtlety, you came to the wrong place. So I’ll go with the car crash that paralyzes Bertier. Not because it’s poorly done, but because it’s a bummer.

Football scenes

I’ve found it’s much easier for movies to accurately portray football in high school than college or pro, for one obvious reason: we don’t need to believe the players for world-class athletes. That being said, the game action here is realistic and persuasive. The film doesn’t fall victim to the need for Hail Mary passes, ridiculous trick plays, or super slo-mo acrobatics. Instead, it takes a nuts and bolts approach, concentrating on the staples of football, particularly in 1971 -- running, tackling and blocking. It’s all very convincing.

Realism

As with every “Based on a true story” film we’ve covered, there are breaks from reality made to deliver a better, more dramatic product to the screen. I expect material facts to be omitted, changed, or made up out of whole cloth, but it’s not often so much of the basis of the film is made up.

While the film portrays the Titans as being a landmark team, the first integrated in their area, playing a bunch of lily-white teams, that is far from the truth. Every team they played that year had actually been integrated years before, as had T.C. Williams, which was actually integrated in 1965, six years before their championship season.

Also, the games the Titans played in the 1971 season were not close ones as often portrayed in the film -- they outscored their opponents by an even 300+ points on the season, and nine of the 13 games were shutouts. And the state championship game vs. Marshall was actually a mid-season game, though it did end dramatically, as in the film. The actual championship game was a 27-0 blowout against another team, so it’s understandable why that was changed to close win.

Additionally, though Bertier did get paralyzed in a tragic car accident, it came just after the championship game (after leaving the year-end football banquet), rather than just before it.

That whole Hall of Fame storyline? Well, there was no Virginia football Hall of Fame in 1971.

Oh, and Coach Boone? Well, let’s just say there’s a fair amount of evidence he’s not nearly the person portrayed on screen, even if he’s been trying to be ever since the film’s success.

For a pretty comprehensive list of inaccuracies and dramatic licenses taken, check out that last link, or this previously linked page. It gives new meaning to the movie’s tagline, “History is written by the winners.”

Best line

Coach Yoast: “I’m worried about my boys.”

Coach Boone: “Well, I ain’t gonna cook ‘em and eat ‘em.”

Up next

Real football. Actual games, and everything.

But first, here’s your chance to set me straight. Is this the best football movie of all time? If not, was it a movie lower down on this list? Or maybe one I missed altogether?

Poll

What is the best football movie of all time?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Remember the Titans
    (53 votes)
  • 7%
    North Dallas Forty
    (10 votes)
  • 6%
    The Longest Yard (1974)
    (8 votes)
  • 0%
    Brian’s Song (1971)
    (1 vote)
  • 8%
    Friday Night Lights
    (11 votes)
  • 3%
    Jerry Maguire
    (5 votes)
  • 7%
    Rudy
    (10 votes)
  • 13%
    Any Given Sunday
    (17 votes)
  • 0%
    All The Right Moves
    (0 votes)
  • 4%
    The Replacements
    (6 votes)
  • 6%
    Other (leave in comments)
    (9 votes)
130 votes total Vote Now

Honorable/dishonorable mentions
No. 10: The Replacements
No. 9: All The Right Moves
No. 8: Any Given Sunday
No. 7: Rudy
No. 6: Jerry Maguire
No. 5: Friday Night Lights
No. 4: Brian’s Song (1971)
No. 3: The Longest Yard (1974)
No. 2: North Dallas Forty