Remember the Titans
"Remember the Titans" is the kind of football movie that I'd thought had gone out with Ronald Reagan's film career. Instead of Notre Dame gallantly working its way through to a championship season in the face of dissension within the team and opposition from the administration and the Boosters' Club, we have the Williams High School football team of Alexandria, Virginia, the Titans, gallantly working its way through to a championship season in the face of dissension within the team and opposition -- this time in the form of race hatred and bigotry -- by parents and the Boosters' Club.
Loosely based on the 1971 integration of the high school (very loosely, according to an NPR report by a member of that year's senior class), it gives us Denzel Washington as Coach Boone, newly arrived from a championship coaching career in North Carolina, being appointed head coach over the team's present coach Yoast (Will Patton), also boasting a championship career, who nonetheless decides to stay on as Washington's assistant. Whites won't play with blacks, parents demonstrate against 'busing' on the first day of school, and so on.
But beginning with a training camp regimen that's modeled on the worst parts of Marine Corps basic training, the team begins to cohere. What is interesting here is that Boone is not given to us as either a genius or a guru. He is headstrong, stubborn to a fault, blind to much of the complexity of real life. Yoast is a more thoughtful, mature man raising his delicious 9-year-old football fanatic of a daughter, who stomps up and down the sidelines raging at bad play-calling.
When it comes to the members of the team itself, the film's script retreats to cliches and stereotypes. We have the white captain who starts out a bigot but grows into something of a saint. And the sullen black player who becomes his soul brother. And the fat white kid with the wit to defuse team tensions, who kept reminding me of the fat white lead singer Deca in "The Commitments," except that he was as sweet as Deca was obnoxious.
The film isn't much more than a record of the season, as the team moves undefeated toward the game for the state championship. It gives us the almost obligatory brick thrown through Boone's window, the tensions between the two coaches, the heroics and mistakes on the field, the conversion of the captain's bigoted girlfriend, and, unexpectedly, Coach Boone's young daughter, who turns out to be as prissy as Coach Yoast's daughter is athletic. It gives us nothing of anyone's life outside of football, neither in class or elsewhere. In that sense it's a typical Jerry Bruckheimer production ("Armageddon" and "The Rock").
But what it does give us is a good kinetic sense of what it means to play the game, although the sound track has been enriched mercilessly so that every hit on the field sounds like a WWF slamfest. And Trevor Rabin's shameless score underlines each moment with more violins than there are in heaven. Nevertheless the film will make you cry for its young men, and that's not a bad thing.
Washington, the most compelling actor in films today, has the gift of commanding any screen, any audience, in any role he plays. He is the obverse of Cary Grant, the man who through his cool passivity could command the screen; Washington does it through the fury and power we sense inside him. He has played Malcolm X and Rubin Carter, and could probably play Margaret Thatcher if the right script came along. His voice is more suited for Mamet than for Shakespeare, but it belongs uniquely to him and he reads his lines better than anyone except perhaps Sean Penn.
Two final points: First, the cinematography by Philippe Rousselot ("Henry and June," "A River Runs Through It," "Interview with the Vampire") is a technical masterpiece. He's used low light throughout, for realism in underlit high school stadium night football games; and he has found a way to give his black characters the kind of modeling with light that we're accustomed to seeing only on whites. When whites and blacks are together on screen, in the locker room for example, both are seen as they are in real life. Blacks don't merge with the background as dark shadows, nor do they just pop out with a glow. They are simply there, looking as they do to our eyes, no less fully realized than the whites. It's a very difficult feat technically because of the limitations of the chemicals in motion picture film emulsions, whose range of color and light response is much narrower than that of the human eye.
Second: Are there no high-school-age actors who can play their age? The Williams High School Titans seem to have a median age of about 24. No wonder they went undefeated.