The Greatest Game Ever Played (Blu-ray)
Directed by Bill Paxton
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:11080pAVC codec
Running Time: 120 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Spanish, others
Subtitles: Engllish, French, Spanish, others
MSRP: $ 34.99
Release Date: June 16, 2009
Review Date: June 8, 2009
A sports story with an underdog facing off against a great champion is a storyline that has been done to death in the movies, yet director Bill Paxton has infused The Greatest Game Ever Played with humanity and genuine tension to make one of the better sports movies of the last twenty years. It helps that the true story of golf legend Francis Ouimet isn’t generally well known, but even if it were, the structure of the tale and the solid production values and interesting approach to the storytelling make the film a real winner.
Two genuinely talented golfers from different sides of the Atlantic Ocean but both coming from humble, meager backgrounds find themselves competing for the 1913 U.S. Open Golf Championship. Veteran British star Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) and American amateur twenty-year old Francis Ouimet (Shia LeBoeuf) are working class men with the class and behavior of gentlemen, embroiled in a tension-filled playoff round with another British veteran Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus) for a championship the British are eager to reclaim from the Americans.
Though the sport of golf has generally been played more for laughs in the movies than for serious intent, The Greatest Game Ever Played is deadly earnest. The film is really about two champions but though one is much older than the other, their backgrounds are similar and each must face and endure the cutting, stifling stench of class prejudice throughout the film. Indeed, director Bill Paxton and his scripter Mark Frost (who based his screenplay on his own book) never miss an opportunity to present the smug, supercilious “gentlemen” looking down their noses at these uppity caddies who have gone on to great glory in what had previously been a "gentleman’s game." In fact, the film’s only real weakness is the overemphasis on the class divisions the two men face. Ouimet’s beloved is upper class socialite Sarah Wallis (Peyton List) whose father and brother look down mightily on the rough-hewn upstart, while Vardon’s heart gets broken early when he returns with his first U.S. Open Championship in hand hoping to be asked to join an exclusive London golf club only to be offered a job there as a golf instructor instead. The movie soars, however, in Paxton’s endlessly fluid and novel ways of making a basically dull game to watch into something kinetic and alive. There are several golf ball’s eye views as it’s sailing through the air. The scoreboard listings are choreographed to keep them jumping and lively. And CGI also comes in handy to make various holes on the course stretch and fold so we can see the focus of each golfer’s eye.
Shia LaBoeuf rose to prominence with this very notable role, etching a mercurial performance as the young Oiumet struggles with emotions as the match ebbs and flows. Stephen Dillane is sensational as the low key champion Harry Vardon often expressing tons of emotion with the flicker of an eyebrow or a slight twist of his mouth. Elias Koteas has some solid emotional moments as Francis’ hard-willed father who’s against his son’s flippant participation in something that will bring him no money. Marnie McPhail is the essence of motherly love and devotion while Josh Flitter steals many of his scenes as Francis’ ten-year old caddie Eddie Lowery who’s wise far beyond his years. Also making a strong impression is Michael Weaver playing the hotheaded defending U.S. Open champion John McDermott who throws down the challenge for the arrogant British champions to take the American championship away from him.
The film’s 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is striking in the transfer (though there are a few instances where thin edge halos were glimpsed and some slight moiré in some thatched roofs), and the slight tint to the image to give it a Kodachrome-like quality gives the Blu-ray no trouble at all in replicating. Colors are richly hued with flesh tones solid if sometimes just a trifle pink. Black levels are very impressive. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio sound mix makes imaginative use of all manner of sounds to set the mood of the early 20th century period of the film and to convey the thousands of spectators who roar their approval at the shot making during the four rounds plus playoffs in the actual contest. Brian Tyler’s engaging score gets spread throughout the soundfield, and the deep bass used often during the film’s tensest moments rumbles impressively in the LFE channel.
There are two audio commentaries available for listening. Director Bill Paxton takes the first one while scenarist-producer Mark Frost comments in the second track. Paxton’s commentary is more meat and potatoes about the day-to-day making of the film while Frost is much more interested in the historical aspects of the story, what was changed for the screen, and giving additional information about the personages being focused on. Frost’s is the more informative commentary of the two.
All of the featurettes are in 480p.
“A View from the Gallery: On the Set of The Greatest Game Ever Played” is a 15 ¼-minute featurette with the director and the writer-producer giving their reasons for being involved with the project and extending lavish praise to their actors, the cinematographer, composer, production designer, costumer, and special effects coordinator, many of whom also weigh in with comments.
“Two Legends and The Greatest Game” offers more extensive biographies about Francis Ouimet and Harry Vardon concentrating especially on their lives after the events in the film. The featurette runs 6 ¾ minutes.
“From Caddie to Champion: Francis Ouimet” is a 24 ¼-minute PBS program filmed in 1963 with the real Francis Ouimet being interviewed about his golfing career and taking us on a tour of the course where he won his championship relating significant moments in his game that made the difference in his winning the title.
The disc offers 1080p trailers for Race to Witch Mountain, Hannah Montana: The Movie, Earth, G-Force, and Morning Light.
The Greatest Game Ever Played is one of the finest sports movies about the game of golf yet made. It features powerful performances and really imaginative direction in retelling a true story that is at the same time familiar and yet satisfyingly compelling. Recommended!