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The Greatest Game Ever Played (9/10)

by Tony Medley

As someone who feels that the only thing more boring than watching golf on TV is actually playing the game, one of the things said by director Bill Paxton blew me away. “I’ve always felt that golf,” said he, “was a very compelling and visual sport.” Visual sport? Golf? Yeah, sure. Visual. A replay of a great golf shot shows a white ball rolling across green grass and dropping in a hole. “Let’s see it from another angle!” So we see a white ball rolling across green grass into a hole from another angle. Then we see it from on top. Then we see it in slow motion. This is visual? Hardly Michael Jordan sweeping in for a spectacular layup or Tinker to Evers to Chance turning a double play or Barry Sanders making a 50-yard broken field run.

But, even though it’s based on a really boring game, this is a terrific movie. Set in 1913 it’s the story of 20-year-old unknown amateur Francis Ouimet (Shia Labeouf) playing his first tournament, the U.S. Open, and beating the best golfer in the world, Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane).

The B-story sets commoners Vardon and Ouimet against the snobby “gentlemen” who ran the private golf clubs and controlled the game of golf. The idea the filmmakers are promoting is that in the early days of golf, “commoners” could not become members of private golf clubs, here or in England. However, Norman MacBeth was a professional and a golf course architect, certainly not to the manor born, but he was not only a member of the Wilshire Country Club, one of the toniest golf clubs in Los Angeles, he was a founding member, a member of the Board of Directors, and President of the Club. And this was circa 1920, only a few years after the setting for this film. So much for accuracy in movies.

Labeouf and Dillane give good performances, and Paxton directs with an admirable eye for the period, the game, and the time. The film was shot by Director of Photography Shane Hurlbut on the oldest films stock he could find. “The old Kodachrome doesn’t exist anymore,“ he says, “but the stock we used responds very much like it. It’s very unusual to shoot on stock this old, and I think that’s one of many things that sets this film apart.”

Stealing the movie, however, is Josh Flitter, who plays Ouimet’s caddy, 10-year-old and very short Eddie Lowery. If he doesn’t garner an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, the Academy is even dumber than I think, and I think it defines dumb. Regardless of what you think about golf, this is an entertaining movie. If I could like a movie about golf, and one which is dominated by the playing of one match, it must be good.

September 29, 2005