One of the things that Disney has gotten right lately is the Fact-Based Sports Movie. First, there was Remember The Titans (football), then The Rookie (baseball) and then Miracle (hockey). You wouldn't think that a movie about golf would be so charming and engaging (especially after going comatose 2004's torturous Bobby Jones: Stroke Of Genius), but The Mouse really has done it again. The family-friendly The Greatest Game Ever Played tells the story of Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf), a poor, lowly 20-year-old Boston caddy and amateur golfer who rises to compete in the 1913 U.S. Open. The story is simple, heartfelt and inspiring, even if it is a bit formulaic.
Actor-turned-director Bill Paxton, who directed the oddly appealing 2002 killer-thriller, Frailty, avoids telling solely a linear, straightforward Horatio Alger story of Ouimet, though he constructs some true tension between Ouimet and his very sensible, old-school immigrant father, Arthur (Elias Koteas). Instead, he parallels it with that of Brit-born links titan Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), a superstar of his day who was constantly at odds with his childhood, as well. Paxton threads a very strong visual throughout -- that of four top-hatted surveyors who serve as funereal Four Horsemen, of sorts. These were the guys that put Vardon and his family out of their home to make way for a golf course, telling the young boy that "Golf is a game played by gentlemen -- not for the likes of you."
Another time that Paxton employs a visual with considerable effect is when he wants to put us in the heads of his players. In one scene, where the din of the crowd and the stress of the moment is proving too much for Ouimet, he focuses intently on eliminating these distractions, and one-by-one, they fall away until it is just him, the ball and the hole. It may sound like a corny over-simplification, but ask any golfer, fisherman or anyone who loves anything so passionately and they'll tell you that that's the way it really is.
Paxton, working from Mark Frost's adaptation of his own novel, The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf, gets to venture into social commentary, as well, giving us some insight as to the class struggles around the turn-of-the-century. Ouimet's father is almost pathologically obsessed with his family, through hard, honest work, rising above his lot in life. Francis can't get the girl because of his inferior stock. Vardon battles the aristocracy to become more than just a society show pony. James Cameron took $200 million and over three hours to make the same points in Titanic that Paxton does here (double coincidence: Paxton starred in Cameron's ship tale, and the ship's fateful sinking was just a year before this film took place). Frost is not so obsessed with nailing every period detail, instead concentrating on making the story accessible to more than just golf nuts and History Channel junkies.
While energetic Holes star (and indentured Disney servant) LaBeouf has more than enough goofy, aw-shucks charm to carry the show here, the best-of in this show is Dillane as Vardon. The British actor, whom audiences will probably best know as Merlin from the Fuqua'ed-up epic attempt, King Arthur, digs deep to share Vardon's crippling fear with us. He does not grandstand or defiantly try to manipulate us to his side by making Vardon rail constantly against the class barriers, though his rivals are a little cartoonish. Instead, he just is. The transformation is fluid and natural, and nobly acknowledging the better man after having been bested says a lot about who he, Frost and Paxton feel that Vardon was.
In the end, it all comes down to one thing: Bill Paxton has done the nigh-impossible -- he has made golf interesting, and that alone is worth the price of a ticket to see. I'd give it four balls out of five (and a hearty golf clap).