Category: Sports Documentaries


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There are two criteria by which I judge the effectiveness of a documentary. Either it moves me emotionally (Children Underground, Undefeated) or it makes me think about the world in new ways (Road to Guantanamo). I’m not sure if a film has ever moved me as much as the 2011 Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner, Undefeated, and if a viewing of The Road to Guantanamo doesn’t leave you incensed about the handling of aspects of the War on Terror, you’re brain dead. Following one season in the life of one of the nation’s most respected high school football programs, Go Tigers! is a more cerebral experience than its spiritual successor, Undefeated, and if it never hits the emotional heights of Undefeated, it may have something more valuable to say.

Undefeated is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen (it’s currently a strong contender for the best, period), and so it’s almost unfair of me to compare Kenneth Carlson’s Go Tigers! to that much-beloved film. Though both films share the structure of following three players through one season (Undefeated also focused on the coach), Undefeated was far more focused on the personalities and emotional growth of the four subjects it portrayed. It was an intensely emotional  and character-driven ride. Go Tigers! is more detached and driven by the meaning of the football town to the team where it plays as well as what type of priorities would produce such a consistently excellent football program.

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In Ohio (and arguably the nation), there is no bigger football program than Massilon, Ohio. Having played for 105 seasons when the film begins, the Masillon Tigers are the oldest high school football team in the nation and easily one of its most successful. Football isn’t just a game in Massilon, Ohio; it’s a way of life. The town lives and dies on the success of the football program, and after a 4-6 season, the town is in a rut. The Massilon school system is on the verge of financial collapse, and if the town can’t pass a levy to salvage the schools, the school’s will have to make devastating cuts across the board. And, in the eyes of the coaches and teachers and players, the only way to convince the town to raise the taxes for the levies is for the high school football team to have a successful season.

Go Tigers! is told from the point of view of three seniors on the football program. Ellery Moore is a natural leader, but the football program is what’s keeping him out of prison where he’s already served a term in juvie for rape (which he denies, but says prison was what he needed regardless). Danny Studer is a gifted artist whose father is the conditioning coach for the team, and Danny’s been bred for football his whole life. And David Irwin is the star quarterback whose biggest concern becomes not making the necessary pass, but finally passing the ACTs. And whether they want it or not, the fate of the whole town lies on these boys’ (and the rest of the team’s) shoulders.

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The residents of Massilon make the obsession of Friday Night Lights‘s residents of Dillon seem like a passing fancy. Danny and David were both held back one year from entering high school so that they could be bigger to play on the football team, and other than an English teacher, no one has a problem with it. Rather than cut some money from the gargantuanly bloated football program, the town wants to raise property taxes on everyone to save the schools. On the day of the biggest game of the season, the high school band has permission from the mayor to march through any establishment in town they choose. Their stadium looks nicer than many smaller colleges. Football is the king of Masillon.

The film is abound with little tidbits exploring the obsession that Massilon has with football, and it isn’t afraid to ask serious questions about where this town’s priorities are. By framing the film’s actions in a town trying to salvage a financially wrecked school system during a major election, the film poses the obvious question of “would this town be in such a mess if the football program weren’t so large?” It also asks such questions as “Would these boys struggle academically if the football program weren’t their lives from the cradle?” And that last part isn’t hyperbole. The film opens with members of the football team staff/booster squad (it isn’t entirely clear) visiting a woman just after she’s given birth and putting a football in her baby’s crib. They do this for every newborn boy in town.

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I watched this movie several evenings ago, but I haven’t had a chance to review it til now. And, this is my first night back in Morgantown after spending the whole summer back in Philippi. I’ve spent most of today in the process of moving and unpacking. It’s as fun and exhausting as it sounds. The fun part is sarcasm. So, I’m going to draw this review to a close. Go Tigers! may not be as life-affirming and immensely enjoyable as Undefeated, but that’s an outrageously high bar to clear. If you have even a passing interest in football, you should give this film a go. I’m not a huge football fan, and I still found it brilliant.

Final Score: A

 

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I work a lot this week. I’m not complaining. I get a paycheck and this is one of my last weeks as a manager before I voluntarily step down to just being a part-timer (cause working nearly 30 hour weeks and being a full-time college student does not really equate to academic success). One of the downsides of working and doing school is that I will occasionally watch a movie and then not have time to actually review the film til several days later. I.e., that’s just what happened after I finished the truly excellent Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated. It’s arguably the best documentary that I’ve ever watched, and it deserves a better review than I can give it after not having much time to think about it since viewing it in the wee, wee hours of Wednesday morning.

It’s very easy to make films with schmaltzy heroes that bring deliverance to some underprivileged group. The Blind Side and The Help are both built on fantasy and racial condescension (The Blind Side is a true story but plays hard and loose with the real life facts of Michael Oher). It’s harder to make a gritty, realistic story full of unsympathetic leads and outright bad people (read: Happiness). The hardest type of movie to make though is one with real-life heroes that doesn’t feel manipulative or unnecessary. To make a film with an uplifting message that exists for a reason other than to just make us feel better about ourselves. 2011’s Undefeated clears that bar and sticks the landing.

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Undefeated is the truly inspiring, real-life recording of the trials and tribulations of the Manassass Tigers, a struggling inner-city football team in Memphis, Tennessee. The team hasn’t made it to the play-offs in years, and in their entire 110 year existence as a high-school, they’ve never won a play-off game. Volunteer head coach Bill Courtney intends to turn the team around. It’s his sixth year as the team’s coach, and with his current crop of seniors, his odds of making to the play-offs have never been better. But, football is secondary to helping to shape these young boys into men for Coach Courtney, and the Coach always keeps character at the forefront for his young athletes.

Alongside Coach Courtney, the film also paints a painfully honest and intimate portrait of the lives of several of the players on the team. O.C. Brown is the team’s star athlete and the only one with real college prospects. Although O.C. is very poor and lives with his grandmother, one of the assistant coaches allows him to stay at his house to help tutor him so he can pass the ACTs to get into school. “Money” Brown is the brains on the team but can’t afford college and tears his ACL during an early game in the season. And the team bad boy, Chavis Daniels, has a massive chip on his shoulders, but Coach Courtney refuses to turn his back on him even when he crosses the line one too many times.

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My viewing experience of Undefeated for the first time was one of the most emotional experiences of my entire movie-viewing career. It’s not an especially difficult task to make me cry, but to have me uncontrollably sobbing is a feat only a handful of movies have accomplished. Undefeated took me to that place three times and I legitimately spent the last hour or so of the film going in and out of tears. It was the rare film that was both exceptionally honest and true. It didn’t hold back from how awful these kids lives were and what little hope many of them had once high school ended. But when it delivered its moments of uplift, it struck a more emotional chord than I can almost begin to describe.

I’m not sure if documentary film directors are eligible for the Best Director award at the Oscars, but if they are, it’s a crime that Undefeated‘s
Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin weren’t nominated (and the film definitely deserved some type of editing recognition). Though the film is a documentary, it never stops having a cinematic feel, and if you hadn’t told me before hand that this film was a documentary, I would have honestly believed that it was just a very authentic feeling film. The movie carries such dramatic weight and is a seriously visual undertaking that even people who don’t enjoy documentaries should find plenty to attach themselves to in this film.

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I hope it’s clear that I have a lot to say about this movie. It now joins The Tree of Life as arguably the best film of 2011 (and it’s infinitely more accessible than Terrence Malick’s opus), and it simply eclipses every other documentary that I’ve reviewed thus far. The film gets favorable comparisons to Hoop Dreams (which I’ve never seen) if you want more context for the film’s import. But, as I’ve said, I watched the movie before going to bed at like 4 A.M. Tuesday (so technically Wednesday), and while many of the heart-wrenching details of the film have certainly stuck with me, I no longer feel like I can do them proper justice after this extended absence. All you need to know is that this film gets my rare perfect score (though not so rare this week since the last movie I reviewed, The Godfather: Part II, also got this score) and that I don’t give “A+”s away lightly.

Final Score: A+