Film Review **1/2: ‘Greatest Game’ Just Barely On Par Tale of Golf’s 1913 U.S. Open is Confusing, Yet Entertaining
By Yong-yi Zhu
Directed by Bill Paxton
Written by Mark Frost
Based on the book by Mark Frost
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Stephen Dillane
The Greatest Game Ever Played” easily falls short of the greatest golf movie ever made. But it will satisfy your appetite for a feel-good, entertaining movie for the better portion of two hours, assuming you can sit through the bland opening credits. The movie does improve significantly after those credits roll by, but a slew of problems prevent it from being a great movie.
Right off the bat, the movie is unnecessarily confusing. Even for someone with golfing knowledge, I could not keep the characters straight for quite a while. Who is Harry Vardon? Why can’t he be a member at a club? And yet why is he so popular? The movie does not answer these questions logically. Instead, it shoots back and forth between the lives of Vardon and the amateur Francis Ouimet, who later battles Vardon for the 1913 US Open. From London to Boston, from one golf club to another, the movie confusingly shifts from one character to another. But when the two storylines collide, the movie takes a big turn for the better.
What is the movie about? It’s almost a “Cinderella Man” with golf clubs instead of boxing gloves. Even Francis Ouimet, played by Shia LaBeouf, looks like a younger version of Russell Crowe. Ouimet wants to be a golfer but is a mere caddie; in those days, you were either born a golfer or never became one. Unbounded by social distinctions and driven solely by a passion for golf, he begs his father to pay his entry fee to a tournament at the country club. If he fails to qualify, he promises, he will give up golf for life. Ouimet does in fact fail to qualify, but when the U.S. Open in 1913 comes to town, he is invited to play by the president of the U.S. Golf Association since he is a local. He must decide whether to disappoint his father or disappoint himself.
Vardon (Stephen Dillane) has a different problem. As a child, he was forced out of his home because a golf course was being built there. The men building the course also tried to destroy his hopes of playing the sport. Years later, even after winning five British Open tournaments to become one of the most celebrated golfers in the world, he is still unsure of his place in society. Why should he not belong to a country club just because he wasn’t born into status? Must there be a caste system separating the “gentlemen” from everyone else? Vardon is a troubled man who must conquer his demons in the next US Open.
The acting in the film is fantastic. True, LaBeouf may look like Crowe, but he acts with the subtlety of Ralph Fiennes. He has all the skills to play someone young but has the presence of an adult. You feel his emotions from disappointment to absolute joy. Dillane was terrific in his portrayal of Vardon. His contemplative looks reveal his troubled state. Even though he doesn’t say much, he conveys his motivations clearly and poignantly through his facial expressions.
Despite the terrific performance by the two main characters, Josh Flitter steals the show from the adults. He plays Eddie Lowery, Ouimet’s 10-year-old caddie, though he hardly acts his age; not only is he a loyal caddie, he also motivates Ouimet. Flitter makes sure that the audience feels Ouimet’s frailty, perceptibly contrasted with his own character’s confidence. He delivers his lines with such bravado that you believe Lowery has had years of experience as a motivational speaker.
In addition to the crisp acting, the music in the film keeps you engaged. The intensity of the music makes the golf matches exciting for anyone, even those with no interest in the game. Bill Paxton couples the score with striking golf scenes, creating an intense yet artistic atmosphere. Paxton further uses some clever camera angles within computer-generated visualizations of the golf course. The end result is a film that recreates the excitement of golf like you’ve never experienced before.