10/10 Uncommon Men
Lightning in a bottle, folks.
Undefeated is a documentary about the Manassas Tigers: a high school football team from Memphis, TN that’s been the laughing stock of their league for as long as anyone can remember. They rarely won a game, they never made it to the playoffs, and the only way they got funding was when other teams paid them to lose. For upwards of a Century, this was business as usual, but then a local businessman signed on as their volunteer coach and all that started to change. Four years later, the Freshman are now Seniors, and with their futures in the balance, they take their last shot at a winning season.
Apologies to the five of you who are still tweaking out over The Artist, but if there was one saving grace of the Oscars this year, it was Undefeated winning for Best Documentary. Since it premiered at SXSW last year and only made it to a handful of theaters this past February, I’m pretty sure it messed up some Oscar brackets as a result, but if any movie (aside from The Interrupters) deserved the win, this was it.
Now after reading that synopsis and looking at that poster, there’s a chance you’re already thinking: this sounds like the same damn underdog sports movie we get every year. For a lot of people, that still ain’t much of a deterrent, but for the skeptics, you just gotta trust me. This is different, this is better. This is Hoosiers, The Blind Side, Rudy, Rocky, Breaking Away, and Friday Night Lights all rolled into one. If you have a favorite sports movie, you’ll find some if it here, but more than anything else, this is Hoop Dreams. That right there is a movie that I could go on about, but one of the many things that separates Hoop Dreams as one of the greatest sports movies of all-time is that it’s about so much more than basketball. I’ll save the diatribe for its own full review, but the CliffsNotes version is that Hoop Dreams was about the broken world we live in, and the basketball prodigies it focused on just happened to be the ones who brought it all to light. Had it been adapted from a script, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective. But because it was real, it was impossible to forget the story of Arthur Agee and William Gates.
I mean, come on, if the choice was between watching Miracle or watching the actual ’86 US hockey team upset those Commie bastards, I don’t even think Kurt Russell would choose the former. Nothing beats the real thing when it comes to sports. It’s why we watch.
With that being said, these are the reasons why Undefeated isn’t just another sports movie: because it’s about so much more than football, and, most importantly, because it’s real. As much as I love documentaries and would love to some day make one, this is one of those documentaries that makes me wanna stick to writing fiction. You see a movie like this and you can’t help but wonder: what were the freakin’ chances. The sheer timing of this movie and how everything came together the way does is beyond mind-boggling. It’s probably easier to call it fate. I don’t know what led directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin to this inner-city school in Memphis, I don’t know what made them start filming during the season they did, and I don’t know how they ended up with so many incredible individuals to focus on. I hate using the phrase “movie magic” because who the hell actually says “movie magic,” but there must have been some kind of voodoo witchcraft involved with how this all came together. Whatever the explanation, I’m just glad there were cameras around.
But it’s funny, because most of the movie doesn’t even take place on the field. It’s a movie about a football team and we hardly even get to see them play. Then again, that leads us right back to square one: this isn’t really about football anyway. The heart of this story is the relationship amongst Coach Bill Courtney and his players and watching how these young men handle the challenges of life, challenges that would leave a lot of people broken and beaten.
Their grades are slipping, the roofs on their homes are literally caving in, some of their parents are either dead or in jail, and they have a million other reasons to pack it up and turn into the high school dropouts that so many people expect them to be. But they don’t.
Coming from a social work background, it was inspiring and then some to see the way Courtney works with his team. I’ve worked with kids like these, and when things aren’t going their way, getting through to them can be enough to make someone in Courtney’s shoes give up. But he doesn’t. If they storm out of a team meeting, he gets in his car, goes to their home, finds out what’s wrong, gets them back on their feet, and brings them back to resume the meeting. I’ve had some good coaches in my day, and I have had some full-on shit coaches, but I don’t even think the best of them would have done something like that for me. And that’s because he keeps going the extra mile to understand his players, understand what they’re going through, and understand that the opportunities before them are too important to take the easy way out.
The point is: everyone deserves to have known a Bill Courtney in their lives. Someone who doesn’t let you give up, who sees the potential in you, who won’t stop until you see it too, and who understands that the important thing in life is not how you handle success, but how you handle defeat. Hopefully this isn’t the most bizarre analogy imaginable, but if Yoda were a high school football coach, he’d be a lot like Bill Courtney. (And just to be clear, we’re talking about Empire Yoda here).
His role in the lives of these young men is paramount to how they succeed as individuals and as a team, but at the end of the day, they’re the ones who make it happen, they earn the credit they gain. At the start of the year, you’ll meet some of these kids and wonder how much longer before they wind up in cuffs or the scene cuts to a funeral. By the end of the year, you might as well be watching a whole new set of teens, ones that any parent would be proud to call their son. And just like with William Gates and Arthur Agee, you’ll leave wondering how O.C., “Money,” and Chavis are doing.
For the past two months, I’ve been ordering everyone I so much as glance at in passing to put all their plans on hold and see this immediately. I get chills when I think about this movie, I wrote half this review with goosebumps up my arms. I was lucky enough to see this in a theater, and when I wasn’t laughing out loud or cheering like a Manassas booster, I was flat-out bawling with everyone else. Lump in the throat, quivering lip, tears down the cheeks – the works. Man, you put me in front of Kramer vs. Kramer or Searching for Bobby Fischer, I’ll well right up, but I have never reacted to a movie the way I did with this. Roll your eyes, burn an effigy, petition to have my Man Card revoked, I don’t care, ’cause I think that’s awesome.
When I talk about movies with people, there aren’t a whole lot that actually get a deeply physical, emotional reaction out of me just by talking about how great they are and how they impacted me as a person. That’s how I get when I talk about High Noon, and that’s how I get when I talk about Undefeated. This is one of those movies that makes you wonder why documentaries don’t get nominated for Best Picture, why instead of seeking this out, we spent over $22 mil to see if 3D glasses would make Episode I suck less. With each new scene that will floor you harder than the last, these are the movies that remind us how truly amazing humanity can be and how fortunate we are to be a part of it, even if we’re simply bearing witness in a movie theater. No matter how much life you’ve lived or how many stories you’ve heard, there is so much to be gained and so much to be learned from the people in this movie and the story it so profoundly tells.
It is required viewing, it’s as important as life, and even though there’s already a scripted remake on the way, do yourself a favor and see this first.