Just look at the name on the film -- Disney. Then look at the subject matter -- high school football in early-1970s Virginia and the racial problems surrounding it. But if you think you've got this movie pegged, you're probably wrong. Sure, the struggling team eventually manages to play like a team, and amid all the black vs. white turmoil there's a major dose of inspiration and all kinds of positive messages. But this film, based on a true story, is a lot more than the usual bunch of cliches that, to tell the truth, the folks at Disney are often guilty of presenting.
There are three reasons the film works so well: writing, acting, directing, not necessarily in that order. Add in another reason: This may be a football movie, but it's just as much about people as it is about the sport.
Denzel Washington is Coach Boone, the man brought into T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria just as desegregation is getting a foothold in town. Black kids were now going to be attending school with the white kids, and both teachers and coaches would be integrated, too. This kind of riles Coach Yoast, the current head coach of the team, since he's now going to be the new guy's assistant. The film doesn't hide the fact that no one wants anything to do with mixing blacks and whites, but it's now the law. So struggles are presented, some of them verbally nasty, some of them physically violent, in all different age groups.
The structure of the script is interesting in that we're shown right away that the racial dilemma is a big one, one that's not going to go away at any time in the near future. The white football players stay with other white players and the white coach. The black players do the same. But as the script slowly blurs the lines between the two groups, it's regularly made clear that whatever small positive steps are taken, there are always more negative steps just around the corner. It's an up and down ride, right into the last reel.
Washington has no trouble making himself comfortable in the part. He's a loving family man as well as an excellent football coach. His Boone is a guy who will never back down from anything, be it a racial slur (he gives it right back, but in a classy manner) or a physical attack (when a brick sails through a window in his home, he's outside with a shotgun in seconds).
And he's great working with this solid script. His opening speech to his new team is forceful and direct, and it's only the first of many powerful ones. The film is actually filled to the brim with speeches by him. But in his hands, they don't sound or feel like "speeches." They come across as passionate, very real expressions of his concerns. And none of them, none of the dialogue delivered by anyone in the film, has even the slightest hint of cliche.
The fine words and acting are nicely supported by the direction of Boaz Yakin, who also did the underrated Fresh. He likes to make a lot of use of extreme close-ups, the most effective of which come in a scene in which both Washington and Will Patton (who plays Coach Yoast) are having some differences, and both of them use quite a bit of silence to show what's going on inside their heads. Patton is so good, he can even get away with saying, "Oh gosh," without making it sound corny.
Director and writer also succeed with the idea of constantly referring to the slow, steady buildup of tension between the team's black and white players, then mix in some well-placed comedy to break that tension. One of the reasons the film works as an audience pleaser is that much of that comedy achieves a level of hilarity.
Even with lots of small, related stories going on in the background, from problems with bigoted girlfriends and town officials to a tragedy near the end of the film, the main focus remains on the changing attitudes of the team members and how negative feelings later turn to high spirits. Although most of the first hour stays with the team at training camp, the second half concentrates on the actual games with other high schools, along with a mention of the fact that if the T.C. Williams team loses even one game, Coach Boone will lose his job and Coach Yoast will get his old position back.
There may be a few too many scenes of team sing-alongs and goofy field entrances, but things get very exciting when the games are being played, and the film is regularly stolen away by Hayden Panettier, the young actress who plays Coach Yoast's daughter, Cheryl. There are other great performances around her, but hers is the feistiest.