Facing the Giants
Many sports movies are formulaic and predictable, meant to be shots of adrenaline for rousing moviegoers, bringing them to their feet, and sending them out of the theater inspired and uplifted. Occasionally, a sports movie rises above the formula, engaging the intellect with superb characterization, acting, and story—a la Raging Bull, Field of Dreams, and Hoosiers. But often, if the on-field action is gritty and exciting enough, all it takes is a few motivational speeches and an against-the-odds underdog story, and you've pretty much got a winner.
Well, usually, anyway. Facing the Giants, the latest inspirational football story to hit the big screen, tests the limits of this theory. When the players are on the field and the football is in the air, it's a surefire audience pleaser; when the action cools down and we're left with just the characters and the story, the fumbles start adding up awfully fast.
A variation on the standard football movie plot, Facing the Giants takes place in a southern Christian high school, where coach Grant Taylor (Alex Kendrick, who also wrote and directed the film) is struggling to keep the school's football program alive. The team isn't winning, the players are apathetic, and some of the parents are trying to have Grant replaced. When we first see him go home to his wife, Brooke (Shannen Fields), we learn that Grant's also having problems off the field; in fact, the film begins stacking the odds so high against Grant that it flirts with outright melodrama—his car won't start, his home is in a state of disrepair, he and Brooke can't conceive, money is running out, and most folks just plain don't like him.
Then, just when things seem like they can't get any worse, a stranger shows up in Grant's office and shares a Scripture verse, saying that the Lord sent him there. Suddenly, it's a whole new ballgame! Grant prays, gets inspired, and revamps his entire philosophy of coaching. His enthusiasm spreads to the whole team, and then the whole school, and suddenly, as Grant notes, it's "like a whole new team."
The motivational speeches are all here, but there's not much in the way of an emotional payoff. For one thing, the odds are stacked so high against Grant and his team that it begins to feel contrived and clichéd—for example, a new kicker joins the team thanks to the prodding of his wheelchair-bound father, and, even though he can't play worth anything, the coaches have a good feeling about him, and let him play anyway.
Then, the film glosses over Grant's change of heart—we briefly see him slip into despair, then, after a short sequence of walking in the woods and reading his Bible, he's suddenly a whole different person, all in a matter of minutes. One might not be looking for deep psychological drama here, but this transformation just feels cheap and tawdry.
And then there's the theology. An assistant coach twists Jesus' words about the wide and narrow gates to apply to kicking field goals. And despite writer/director Kendrick's insistence that he's "not a name-it-and-claim-it guy," that's just what happens in the movie: After Grant gets right with Jesus, everything goes his way. We won't give away the plot developments, but suffice it to say that every situation that could go either way ends up going the "right" way—on and off the field. The "giants" aren't merely faced; they're all slain, and everybody lives happily ever after. Seems a bit like "prosperity gospel" dressed up in helmets and shoulder pads.