As unlikely a movie star as ever there was, Shia LeBeouf continues to reveal resourcefulness as an actor. In the wholly predictable and often cloying The Greatest Game Ever Played, he plays amateur golfer Francis Ouimet, who stunned the 1913 golfing universe with his performance in the U.S. Open. His curly locks pressed down alternately by tonic and caps, LeBeouf looks appropriately boyish and also earnest, an underclass kid whose love of “the game” and apparently prodigious natural skills grant him the wherewithal to enter into history.
Which isn’t to say that The Greatest Game Ever Played is especially concerned with accuracy. It is, instead in love with myth and passion and aspiration, all wrapped up in predictable sports-movie conventions. Along the way, Bill Paxton’s film, following hard on the heels of Seasbiscuit, Cinderella Man, and even Friday Night Lights, sets up a wholly sympathetic, dedicated, appealing, underclass hero for triumph against insurmountable odds.
Make that two heroes. for Francis’ chief opponent is also a working class sort, though British, which makes him ripe for toppling in this national-prideful mini-genre. Running parallel to Francis’ career, though a few years ahead of him, is Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), also a c]prodigy and also a decent sort who must battle his chosen sport’s egregious class pretensions. Harry is introduced as a young, poor boy (James Paxton), informed by officious men in tall black hats that “Golf is a game played by gentlemen, not for the likes of you.” He learns to caddy and play, the first keeping him from being recognized as an able competitor, because, well, caddies aren’t allowed to compete.
And still, by sheer will and talent and force of will — or so we might believe — Vardon becomes an international champion, even if he’s not allowed to be an official member of the club he represents worldwide. Similarly, young Francis (Matthew Knight) grows up on the edge of a golf course and shows a natural talent and passionate interest, but his father Arthur (Elias Koteas) discourages him from playing, insisting he learn a trade.
Francis also spots a beautiful rich girl, Sara (played as a child by Amanda Tilson and later by Peyton List), who comes to represent the monied and landed class from which he is excluded. She appreciates his enthusiasm for the game, however, and his efforts to play are soon caught up visually in images of her on the sidelines, smiling and encouraging his victory. This bit of class embodiment is not a little tiresome, and it means that LeBeouf is also playing something approximating a romantic lead, stretching those resources still more.
No surprise, Francis, who works as a caddy and then as a clerk in a sports gear store, becomes so good at golf that he eventually enters the 1913 U.S. Open as an amateur. Here he’s competing against his idol, the great Harry Vardon, as well as Harry’s buddy, the large-bodied, cigar-chomping Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus). Harry’s play is delicate and precise, where Ted’s is aggressive; Francis’ falls between, and he is accompanied by a comic-reliefy caddy, a very short, lively sixth-grader with a chatty affect, Eddie (Josh Flitter).
While the players battle it out, the game is reimagined by director Bill Paxton and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut as a series of grand, sweeping shots, sometimes taking the ball’s point of view and at others, the subjective states of the players (enhanced by CGI). Because he plays so stunningly well, Francis becomes something of a celebrity, annoying and eventually gratifying his stubborn father (his mother, Mary [Marnie McPhail], is supportive throughout, but quieted by her husband’s outrage). But for all its interest in the class and gender issues of the day, the movie is most insistently focused on Francis’ perseverance and passion. And that’s a story that feel very old, history or not.