McFarland USA (5/10)
by Tony Medley
Runtime 122 minutes.
OK for children.
This is a story that has been told time and again in different times and
places, a coach who goes to a rundown school and turns initially
uninterested student athletes into champions. It’s a nice story, but how
many more times do we have to see it in a major motion picture?
Teacher v. angry students is one of Hollywood’s favorite themes. It
probably didn’t start with Blackboard Jungle (1955), but that’s a
good start for this review. ‘Jungle was a good enough movie and
it made Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” an all-time hit, credited
with introducing Rock ‘n’ Roll to the mainstream public. In addition to
star Glenn Ford, it was the debut movie for Vic Morrow and Jamie Farr.
Others followed, including such fine movies as Hoosiers (1986)
and Remember the Titans (2000); the list goes on and on. So this
is just another in a seemingly unending line in which the basic story is
always the same.
This one is directed by Niki Caro, a New Zealander who was responsible
for the excellent Whale Rider in 2002, so she should have primary
responsibility for the snore-inducing length of the film.
Here Kevin Costner is Jim White, a coach who (according to the movie, see
below), because of past transgressions and misunderstandings, can only
find a job in McFarland California, a small town just outside
Bakersfield, populated by Hispanic farmworkers. The picture expertly
captures the backbreaking work done by these people in the fields and
the seemingly bleak future they have. For me that was the best part of
Costner starts out as a football coach. That doesn’t work out well. But
after he sees some of the students running to and from work and school
he asks to become the school’s first long-distance running coach,
encountering hostility from the students and their parents.
The result is heartwarming success due to the hard work of the coach,
despite problems with his family, wife Maria Bello (whose talent is
wasted n such a minor role) and two daughters. Everybody feels good at
the end of the movie when graphics and photos of the real people who
lived the story tell what happened to all of the runners and the coach.
It’s a story that could have been told concisely and well in 90 minutes,
but Caro lengthens it out for an additional 32 minutes by putting in one
reaction shot after another. It becomes extraordinarily tedious, which
is exacerbated by the predictable ending of such a familiar tale. That
said, it is an uplifting tale and what White accomplished for these
underprivileged Hispanics should be known and lionized, so more power to
Disney for making the movie.
Unfortunately, Caro also tells a story that didn’t really happen. Oh,
the running team did become successful as a result of the coach’s
efforts. But the backstory is all poppycock. He wasn’t fired from a
previous football coaching job in another city and reluctantly move to
McFarland to start out cold as the football coach. In fact, the White
family moved to McFarland in 1964, 23 years before he won the first
cross country title in 1987 and 16 years before he started the cross
country team in 1980. And it was White’s choice to live in a small town,
not a last gasp move that depressed his wife and daughters as shown in
the movie. When you can’t believe this basic part of the story, it
damages the credibility of the rest of the film. What else is true and
what is made up? Truth is often stranger than fiction, and truth is
generally a better story than what some Hollywood screenwriter might
postscript, this film is the first use of a new app called myLINGO,
a smartphone app that allows moviegoers to experience a film in the
language of their choice discreetly through personal headphones.
Moviegoers can enjoy the film in Spanish. The myLINGO app uses the
microphone on a moviegoer’s smartphone or other device to “listen” to
the audio, once the movie has begun. The app, through a proprietary
algorithm, then matches the unique audio signature to its precise place
in the movie, and plays back the alternate language audio through
headphones in perfect sync with the film. The audio file will only play
if it hears the movie, and once the movie is over, the file self-deletes
from the app.