Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Greatest Game Ever Played

"The Greatest Game Ever Played" (Bill Paxton, 2005)
Mark Twain said, "Golf is a good walk spoiled."

Director Bill Paxton compouds the error.

Despite the inherent drama of Mark Frost's* account of the David versus Goliath 1913 U.S. Open, Paxton takes the advice to "keep-your-eye-on-the-ball" a bit too literally in order to punch up the movie's visual fireworks. Though Frost has fashioned a good story of contrasts, pitting a renowned British pro--the greatest golfer of his day--against an unseasoned American amateur, Paxton keeps threatening to derail it with fancy camera moves and divot-POV's. It becomes a bit of a crutch; rather than solving the perpetual "make it interesting" challenge of filming golf, the director fashions every power-stroke with a new "fly-away" special effects shot. Once or twice, sure, it is fun. And it's all well and good to try and enliven the proceedings of one of the slowest-moving sports, but the swooshing, spinning flight paths he employs on so many shots become wearying and take away from the human drama, which is where the strength of the story lays.

Fortunately, Paxton's cast couldn't be finer. Shia LaBoeuf's Francis Ouimet is a constant revelation of emotions--he has one of those faces that the camera loves; every thought in his head etches something across his chinless features. By contrast, Stephen Dillane's Harry Vardon is all-laser-beam-intensity, betraying nothing but an iron will. One of Paxton's best moves ** is a shot of Vardon in the gallery, watching Ouimet play.

The faces in the crowd turn their heads following the result of a powerful wood shot, except for the British golfer fixated on the kid's moves. Dillane has been doing more and more impressive work "The Hours," and as Thomas Jefferson in HBO's "John Adams." If Thames wants to stop playing revolving doors with their Sherlock Holmes series on shorts (Richard Roxburgh, Rupert Everett) they could do worse than trying out Dillane as The Great Detective.

It's a great story--a heart-warming story, made more so by the fact that it's true.*** There was no need to go as overboard as Paxton does. One of the first things you learn in golf is that you do better if you don't try so hard. Grace wins over power.
* Frost more famously co-created "Twin Peaks" with David Lynch, and also co-wrote the screenplay for "The Fantastic Four" proving that no matter how well you've played before you can still occasionally be below par.

*** It's true a lot--but not completely. AND HERE, THERE BE SPOILERS. Highlight no further.

--the final score was actually Oulet - 72, Vardon-77, and Troy-78. It didn't come down to the wire as depicted in the film.

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