Baltimoreans might be taken aback by the title - wasn't the Greatest Game Ever Played between the Colts and Giants back in '58? - but they shouldn't let that stop them from savoring this gem of a movie, in which class struggles are played out within the confines of a golf match.
The Greatest Game Ever Played tells the story of Francis Ouimet, a young Boston caddy who, because the locals wanted some sort of rooting interest, found himself in the 1913 U.S. Open. At the time, golf was reserved for blue bloods; members of the working class were assumed unworthy and unable to play the game.
Ouimet won the Open, beating the greatest player of the time, British champ Harry Vardon, and turning the game into a populist exercise. All of which sounds stirring, but not the stuff of a great movie. Golf may be a grand sport, but except in broad comedies like Caddyshack, it has rarely translated successfully to the big screen.
Here, director Bill Paxton and screenwriter Mark Frost wisely focus on the contest of wills between Vardon (Stephen Villane) and Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf), and not on the game itself, thus avoiding shot after shot of golfers tracing the arc of their ball as it leaves the tee.
While both leads are excellent, the scene-stealer is Josh Flitter as 10-year-old Eddie Lowery, Ouimet's blunt-talking, motivational caddy. With this kid in his corner, it's no wonder Ouimet wins the Open.
But the key to Greatest Game's success is that it's really about overcoming class barriers. Vardon, too, rose from a working-class background, and also had to endure snobbery.
The film, in fact, opens on Vardon, introducing him as a boy whose family home is torn down to make way for a seaside golf course. Overseeing the demolition are three dark-robed men, looking down their noses at young Harry. The image haunts Vardon for the rest of his life.
Ouimet's demons are less spectral, but equally daunting. His factory-worker father (Elias Koteas) sees golf as above his son's station. He tolerates it as a pastime, but when Francis starts treating it as an avocation, the older man puts his foot down.
Paxton sometimes lays on the class conflicts too thickly, turning the aristocrats into cartoon-like adversaries. But he and Frost wisely refuse to demonize Vardon or make him into someone we can easily root against.
The Greatest Game Ever Played recognizes the difference between playing a game and living a life. Your opponent on the golf course isn't an enemy, just somebody who thinks he can hit a ball straighter than you. The people who hold you back in life, now they're adversaries worth hating. In a society where athletic competitions are too often likened to war, the recognition that everyone's equal once they're off the playing field is a welcome reminder of that little thing called perspective, not to mention sportsmanship.
The Greatest Game Ever Played (Walt Disney Pictures)
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Stephen Dillane, Josh Flitter.
Directed by Bill Paxton.
Rated PG-13. Time 115 minutes.