Monday, 15 May 2006

The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) DVD

Once, a classmate tried to argue that golf is a working class sport. Comfort taxi drivers, she claimed, do pay to play at some golfing facilities. “Look, I don’t understand why you keep saying golf is a sport for elites.” Years later, I still stand by what I said. It’s very difficult to sell golf as a sport for the common man, not the least because country and golf club memberships cost a million nowadays – you can pay an hourly fee for the golf course and club rental, but you’ll never be allowed in the main club facilities.

In 1900 and 1904, golf was an Olympic sport, but was dropped subsequently because the crowds didn’t warm to the game and the elite set it attracted. Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), the British Open champion, won the US Open in 1900. The working class champion was nonetheless denied membership to gentlemen’s country clubs, which saw him as nothing more than a professional golfer, a wage labourer unsuited for entry in Society. 10 years later, Francis Ouimet (Shia Labeouf), an impoverished American caddy and amateur, will astonish the world and defy his father’s wishes to “mind your own place” by becoming America’s greatest hope against Vardon’s second British invasion of the US Open.

Due to its social background, a sports movie on golf will eventually end up talking about the class struggle. It helps that both Ouimet and antagonist Vardon are working class heroes, struggling to be the best, in spite of or because of elitist bias against golf players like them. Both characters, despite their US Open rivalry, are players ruled by honesty, sportsmanship, and compassion. Both are also haunted by the class struggle (in the form of obnoxious Lord Northcliffe, the sponsor of the British team and the snotty father of Ouimet’s love interest) and their own internal fears of not being good enough to belong.

This would be one of the rare Disney sports movies that doesn’t make the opposing team the villains. It is certainly the only sports movie I know of that looks radically different from the rest of the genre. This is partly due to the nature of the sport, which involves no physical contact at all between its competitors, but also the focus on the psychological game. As Vardon points out in a golf primer that Ouimet reads before the Opens begin, “there are only 2 types of players: one who concentrates and keeps his head in the game and wins championships, and those who don’t.”

To keep viewers entertained in what looks really boring on television, director Paxton uses CGI effects to track the trajectory of balls, in order to make the game look really dynamic. If that’s not enough, there’s always moments of zen, where the golf masters must erase all spectators (and hence distractions) from their mind’s eye to visualise an empty field. Moments like that kept reminding me of The Karate Kid, and the old gentleman (Len Cariou) who plays mentor to Ouimet does look like Mr Miyagi anyway. There’s also an improbable little kid (Josh Flitter) who gives Ouimet golfing advice, for the ultimate Disney touch. (To my surprise, Francis Ouimet really did have a 10-year-old caddy during that match!)

These distractions aside, Bill Paxton has created a remarkable but underrated sports movie that deserves to be watched by more people. Its mature storytelling had me cheering for both Vardon and Ouimet, and since when had a sports movie do that to its viewers?

DVD Extras

There aren’t many extras on this DVD, but what we have is well produced. There is the entertaining making-of featurette, “Two legends and the greatest game”, where the director, writer, and various actors give more information about the background and concept of the movie and how they came to be involved with it (look out for Lebouf’s charming tale!). There’s also “A view from the gallery”, which delves into the historical figures of Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet, and how they both changed the face of professional golfing with their innovation and sheer excellence of execution.

If you’re buying considering buying this DVD, do take note that it lacks the basic commentary by the director and writer, as well as the 25 minute feature “From Caddie to Champion: Francis Ouimet”, a 1963 broadcast of an interview with the 70-year-old golfer, where he recreates the match for the viewers.

First published at incinemas on 15 May 2006

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