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The Greatest Game Ever Played Review

By Shawn McKenzie 09/30/2005

Golf is one of those sports I’ve never been that interested in (of course that statement usually applies to all sports for me.)  At least I know how to play it (I’m just not very good though.)  Golf is right above fishing in the boredom factor, so before I saw The Greatest Game Ever Played, I was a little worried that it was going to be dull.  Aside from 1980’s Caddyshack and 1996’s Happy Gilmore, golf movies haven’t appealed to me.  With the decent acting and the visual aspect of it, I ended up liking it…so it wasn’t a bogey for me.

Harry “The Stylist” Vardon (James Paxton, Harry at 9 years old) was a young boy living on the island of Jersey, off the coast of the United Kingdom.  When his family immigrated to Britain, Harry (Stephen Dillane, Harry as an adult) grew up to become one of the most famous golfers of all time, winning the U.S. Open in 1900 and the British Open six times (a record that stands to this day.)  Nineteen-year-old Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) is an Irish immigrant in Brookline, Massachusetts who works as a caddie for the Brookline Country Club, which is located right across the street from his house.  His father Arthur (Elias Koteas) thinks that he should get a real job and stop daydreaming of becoming a golfer.  Francis’ supportive mother Mary (Marnie McPhail) has the opposite opinion of her husband.  Once when Francis was a young boy (Matthew Knight, Francis as a kid), she took him out of school to see his idol Vardon.  Ever since, he practices by candlelight his golfing skills.  While working as a caddy, club member Ted Hastings (Justin Ashforth) encourages Francis to play in the National Amateur Championship to be held at the club the following month.  Despite being poor, he is allowed to play in the elite tournament, if he pays the $50 entry fee and he has Hastings’ sponsorship, according to the rules.  Club member Embry Wallis (Jonathan Higgins) and his son Freddie (Max Kasch) object to Francis entering the tournament, but Embry’s daughter Sarah (Peyton List) encourages it, and a love bond between Francis and Sarah begins.  Arthur really doesn’t want Francis to play, but he agrees to put up the $50 if Francis will get a real job, should he lose.  Francis biffs it, and he honors Arthur’s request to quit the game.  A year later, he is working in a sporting goods store when Hastings, who is now a representative from the U.S. Golfing Association, speaks to him about entering the 1913 U.S. Open as the first ever amateur golfer.  They want a local competitor for the Open, and Hastings thinks that Francis would be perfect.  He refuses at first, honoring the promise that he made to his father earlier, but the lure of the game becomes too great, so he decides to play.  He has an old golf pro named Alec Campbell (Luke Askew) whip him into shape, and he looks for a caddy of his own.  He asks Jack Lowery (Johnny Griffin) to be his caddy, but when Jack can’t do it because of truancy, he has Jack’s 10-year-old brother Eddie (Josh Flitter) caddie for him, despite the fact that the golf bag is almost as big as he is.  Francis enters the tournament, and he faces some stiff competition, including Vardon, his friend Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus), current U.S. champion John J. McDermott (Michael Weaver), and young British champion Wilfred Reid (George Asprey.)  Lord Northcliffe (Peter Firth) really wants to win one for Britain, so the British golfers (Vardon, Ray, and Reid) don’t even think about the underdog that is Francis, who turns out to be the Cinderella story of the Open.

Actor Bill Paxton directed this movie, and fortunately, he doesn’t star in it as well.  I just recently saw his directorial debut, 2001’s Frailty, and even though it was really good, I didn’t think that Paxton’s acting was the best (his only other project directed by him before this was the early ‘80s Barnes & Barnes music video “Fish Heads,” which was a staple on Nickelodeon.)  Somehow, Paxton managed to make the slow moving sport exciting.  Using a golf ball point-of-view shot, the movie becomes thrilling.  There is even a cool shot of a ladybug landing on a ball right before a club swings at it.  A fast-paced montage of a round in the rain in the latter half of the movie upped the exhilaration factor.  Even though the movie takes place in the early 20th century, all of the players make the sport as interesting to watch as Tiger Woods usually does today.  The credit has to go back to Paxton, using the screenplay written by television writer/director Mark Frost, who adapted his own 2002 novel, The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf, into a faithful true story (from what I’ve heard.)

This is another example of good acting that will be passed over for Oscars because the Academy doesn’t like feel-good Disney flicks (see 2000’s Remember the Titans or last year’s Miracle.)  LaBeouf is one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood.  He has carried a movie more than once (2003’s Holes and the “Project Greenlight” movie The Battle of Shaker Heights), yet he hasn’t been granted A-list status yet.  His movie father, Koteas, is good, but I didn’t like the transformation of the character in the end.  Disney movies are very predictable, so you knew what was going to happen, but his change of heart seemed to come out of the blue, which bothered me.  Dillane was supposed to be the resident villain of the movie, but Frost wrote his character to want to just play golf, not beat Ouimet specifically, which I found refreshing.  Flitter’s performance was a little goofy, but he turned out to be the one that stole the show.  List was probably the most disappointing performance, but I think that was the fact that the character herself was underwritten.  I never read the book, so I don’t know much about the love story, but since there wasn’t much of one, they should have just taken her character out.  It wouldn’t be the last time a true story adaptation has exorcised a character for the sake of a better flowing story.

My movie critic colleague Reggie McDaniel says that he doesn’t enjoy watching golf, because any sport that requires you to be quiet while playing the game isn’t worth watching.  In the case of The Greatest Game Ever Played, I think that even he would agree that the movie was above par, if not a hole-in-one.


Get the soundtrack score composed by Brian Tyler:

Get the Mark Frost novel, The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf, that the movie is based on:

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