"The Greatest Game Ever Played" hasn't exactly been the greatest game ever filmed. Maybe loony outings like "Caddyshack" or "Happy Gilmore" made golf look appealing only as something to be played for laughs, because the serious links flicks haven't been tearing up the courses. Films like "Tin Cup," "The Legend of Bagger Vance," and "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius" had their moments, but ultimately ended up hooking off into the trees or making the gallery yawn. So it's refreshing that director Bill Paxton chose not to film this like one of those hush-hush walk-along games you see on TV, or as a sentimental biopic. Instead, he envisioned it as a Western shoot-out based on class as much as talent, with a social hierarchy in 1913 America and Great Britain that reminded him of feudal times. And instead of making a sports picture, he concentrated on making a period film which just happened to be about an athlete's dream.
Paxton and author-screenwriter Mark Frost zero in on the first true underdog story in American sports, when a lowly caddy rose in just five years to win the U.S. Open as an amateur in a playoff round against two professional champions from Great Britain: "One David against two Goliaths." What's fascinating is that these Goliaths aren't the real villains. The film is mostly about the haves and have-nots, detailing a time when golf was an elitist sport played only by aristocrats on both sides of "the pond." Members of the lower class who tried, like British champs Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) and Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus), to elevate their social standing via the game found themselves still relegated to second-class status. When 20-year-old Francis Oimet won the cup for America at a time when nationalism was running high and a strong middle class was starting to emerge, he became a hero for the masses. So did the sawed-off little 10 year old who became his caddy by default just 10 minutes before he was to tee off.
Josh Flitter is hilarious as caddy Eddie Lowery, and Shia LaBeouf is extremely likable as the young Oimet, who grew up on a house across from the course where he would caddy and eventually play on, with the help of a revolutionary-minded club member and resident pro. But there's more to the tension. Shades of "Billy Elliott," Francis' immigrant father (Elias Koteas) believes that his son has to accept his lot in life and forces him to quit the game by rattling him on the final hole of a local tourney to win a wager with the boy. But the same love of golf that would lead Francis to Boston as a knickers-and-knee-socks wearing youngster to get a lesson from Vardon would prompt him to renege and enter the Open against his father's wishes. Then, to beat his idol with a caddy everyone is laughing at? As Frost quips, "You can't write this stuff." Well, maybe you can, because he added a layer of class conflict by giving Oimet a high society love interest (Peyton List|) and her protective brother (Max Kasch), who enjoys reminding Oimet of his lowly station.
The tagline on this Blu-ray reads "from the studio that brought you Remember the Titans, The Rookie, and Miracle," and "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is just as compelling and feel-good triumphant. Its only weaknesses come from a narrative that jumps around quite a bit in the early going and over-used and heavy-handed CGI flight-of-the-ball movement and other gimmicks (like a CGI ladybug on a ball that the burly Ray smacks, or Vardon's visualized erasure of everything but the hole). But the acting is solid, and the film is so evocative of the time and places that you'd never know they shot in Montreal instead of London and Brookline, Massachusetts.
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer appears to be a good one, with no visible artifacts. Paxton chose to shoot with a lot of soft-focus backgrounds, though, and you won't see much in the way of Hi Def on those shots except on the actors in the foreground. The film is just a little uneven, too. Some scenes feature strong black levels with wonderful detail and natural-looking colors, while others are just a little flat-looking or contain a barely detectible amount of grain. Darker interiors or street scenes fare better than brightly lit ones, but this is nit-picking, because the Blu-ray looks considerably better than the DVD. It's just that some scenes you really notice as being awfully beautiful in Hi Def, while others you forget you're watching in 1080p. "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Disney went with an English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio on this one, and it's a pretty full-bodied, rich-toned track that projects the quiet moments as well as it handles the louder music-backed action. There's a nice clarity to the soundtrack and decent use of surround-sound speakers, all of which makes for a natural viewing and listening experience. The sound technicians also did a nice job of balancing the dialogue with effects and music. Additional audio options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
The bonus features are the same as on the DVD release. Paxton and Frost have a lot to say, which explains why there are two separate commentaries instead of a joint track. Both are above average, with very little dead air. One interesting extra is a vintage black-and-white feature from the Sixties in which the real Oimet, in his old age, reminisces on camera and walks along the course and past the clubhouse where he made history. We learn in a making-of feature that Paxton had a childhood love of golf too, and behind-the-scenes clips have the feel of half-documentary and half-reality show. In another feature, Frost gives background on Oimet and the two British pros that didn't make it into the film--Vardon fought a life-threatening battle with tuberculosis before returning to America for the 1913 U.S. Open, for instance--and points out things that the golfers tried in order to combat class prejudice.
Like golf, "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is leisurely paced, and young viewers into action rather than an appreciation of what life was like in a bygone era might find it slow going--though it does pack plenty of tension, and it has a satisfying payoff. "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is absolutely family-friendly, as clean a PG film as I've seen. It only has very brief mild language, but the characters model some wonderful behavior for youngsters--things like tolerance, restraint, persistence, good manners, and good sportsmanship. Things that, sadly, seem to have gone the way of knickers.