Before even seeing The Greatest Game Ever Played, about a legendary match known mostly to those who have followed the history of golf, you could already hear the sound of a thousand film critics’ minds pre-registering their disinterest in the sport. Despite some very entertaining films made about it (Caddyshack, Happy Gilmore, Tin Cup), golf will never be America’s sport and never (times two) be a movielover’s first choice on the sports flick charts. Playing it may be one thing, but being forced to watch it is something entirely different, especially cinematically. There are socially relevant aspects to its exclusionary history that can appeal to fans of drama and Bill Paxton (yes, Bill Paxton) makes a go of it in the director’s chair, doing justice to the sport but not entirely to the drama which suffers from some choppy introductions and half-hearted class distinctions in Mark Frost’s self-book inspired screenplay.The rather presumptious title refers to the 1913 U.S. Open (or maybe the subsequent playoff that resulted from it) when a 20-year old caddy named Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) would take on Britain’s reigning champion, Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), for national bragging rights to the silver trophy. Francis Ouimet (pronounced “we met” which in a Marx Bros. comedy would probably be retorted with “no, we haven’t”) and Vardon are not so dissimilar. Both grew up with poor, working class families and would discover a taste for golf early on with courses turning up in their backyards. If anything, the film certainly confirms my suspicions that courses are built by evil men in black hats who would shoo away the downtrodden and their houses so they could knock their balls around.
These golf course Nazguls will haunt Vardon at the most inopportune times while Francis’ chief obstacle comes from big daddy Ouimet (Elias Koteas with an overemphasized brogue) who doesn’t believe that there’s any future in a sport that doesn’t want him to play in the first place. Just once I would have liked to see Francis show him that there’s even a prize list for the losers. This isn’t American Idol. It does set up the undeniably heart-tugging moment when father chooses to believe in his son; a hard scene to muck up even in an average film.
This isn’t the fault of Paxton though who is working with just an average underdog tale rather than failing the material. Through some rather nifty editing and special effects, Paxton actually manages to induce some excitement to the game. Walking around, hitting and tapping in the context of mere action has never raised an adrenaline level without the down-to-the-wire finish of a 72-hole stretch. But Paxton speeds it up, adding some much needed drama (and a nifty rain sequence) to a match-up where the outcome isn’t in question and the audience would have felt satisfied with either of the two underdogs coming out on top.Arizona coming back Game 7-style to take the World Series from the Yankees in 2001. Michael Jordan hitting the final shot of his Bulls career to win the 1998 NBA Finals. Adam Vinateri’s game-clinching field goal to begin the current New England Patriots dynasty. I’ll even throw in Tiger Woods winning his first Masters. All of these are candidates for the illustrious title associated with this barely remembered weekend. And that's just in the past decade. It’s certainly a far cry from the mythic boredom of Bagger Vance and Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius. The performances are fine. The story is fine. Bill Paxton proves a skill behind the camera finer than most. It just isn’t great.